MIAMI – Grand Lake will stay up two feet higher during certain times of year as granted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) despite City of Miami and tribal objections.

FERC handed down the order Tuesday, Aug. 15, amending the Grand River Dam Authority's (GRDA) license of operation for the Pensacola Project No. 1494, and dismissed the application for temporary variance as a moot request because of the decision.

“While the City did oppose the past variances and this amendment, the action of FERC is not a surprise based on past rulings concerning GRDA’s desire to keep lake levels higher during the Labor Day period,” Miami's City Manager Dean Kruithof said. “One very positive step that has come from this process is GRDA’s commitment to a Storm Adaptive Management Plan which tries to anticipate potential flooding conditions and implement steps to lessen those effects. This has been very effective during the last two temporary variances. As a result, we have seen a much more proactive program of communication and water releases during heavy rains in the region.”

GRDA filed the permanent licensure amendment to raise the reservoir elevation rule curve requirements as part of the application on May 6, 2016. GRDA's request to increase the target lake elevation by up to two feet between Aug. 16 and Oct. 31 has been approved on a permanent basis by FERC.

“We are very pleased with FERC’s decision,” said GRDA Chief Executive Officer Dan Sullivan. “This will allow us to hold the elevation of Grand Lake at a level that is much safer for recreation not only during the busy Labor Day holiday but throughout the latter portion of the boating season.”

Sullivan added that the decision by FERC is also notable because it is one of the first, if not the very first, actions on the part of the new commission. Normally a five-member commission, FERC had been without a quorum for six months until two new members – appointed by President Trump – were recently approved by the United States Senate and sworn into their positions last week.

“We are also very appreciative of Sen. Inhofe, not only for his support of our amendment request but also his efforts in restoring a quorum to FERC,” said Sullivan. “We were able to meet a critical deadline on this issue.”

The license for the Pensacola Project had previously set the elevations at this time to be lowered from 743 to 741 feet. Under the new license GRDA will be allowed to maintain elevations of 743 feet from Aug. 16 to Sept. 15, lower the elevation between 743 to 742 feet from Sept. 16 to Sept. 30, and maintain a 742 elevation from Oct. 1 to Oct. 31. After Oct. 31 GRDA will follow the project's existing rule curve.

This current license expires on March 31, 2022. GRDA sought the rule curve change to reduce the risk of vessel grounding on Grand Lake in late summer, improve recreation during the summer/fall peak recreation season, better balance competing stakeholder interests and provide additional water storage if necessary, to assist in maintaining dissolved oxygen concentrations in the river below the project.

“We continue to seek a long-term solution to the lake level issue which would give us more operational control over the lake while balancing all of the other stakeholder concerns of hydroelectric generation, flood control, and recreation,” Sullivan said.

Headquartered in Vinita, GRDA is Oklahoma’s state-owned electric utility; fully funded by revenues from electric and water sales instead of taxes.

A temporary variance request was filed by GRDA on July 11, 2017, in the event no decision had been made on the permanent license request by August 15 of 2017.

FERC last issued a new license to GRDA on April 24, 1992, for operations of the 105.18 megawatt Pensacola Project located on the Neosho River in Craig, Delaware, Mayes and Ottawa Counties in Oklahoma. The project includes a 5,950 foot long, 147 feet high dam, 46,500-acre reservoir (Grand Lake) with 522 miles of shoreline, a powerhouse at the base of the dam, and a 1.5-mile long tailrace and spillway channel in the riverbed below the dam.

Grand Lake is managed for multiple purposes including power generation, recreation, fish and wildlife enhancement and flood control.

Dedicated flood storage is provided between elevations 745 and 755, and at this elevation, the Tulsa District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers directs GRDA's releases. When under the flood pool elevation levels, the project is operated by GRDA under the license requirements.

GRDA has made nine requests for the temporary variance from Aug. 15 to Oct. 31 since 1996. Six of those applications were withdrawn by GRDA or denied or dismissed by FERC. In 2012, 2015 and 2016 GRDA was granted temporary variance during this timeframe.

As part of the new license agreement with FERC, GRDA has proposed implementation of a Storm Adaptive Management Plan and Drought Management Plan to be used in the case of such events.

As a result of GRDA's license amendment and variance requests, the City of Miami, the Miami and Modoc Tribes , a group of residents and businesses represented by Larry Bork, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Inter-Tribal Council of Northeast Oklahoma (ITC), Al Newkirk, the Oklahoma DWC, and Oklahoma Archeological Survey filed comments opposing GRDA's application and motions to intervene.

GRDA filed response on Nov. 8, 2016, and on June 8, 2016, the ITC and member tribes requested consultation with FERC which took place Aug. 3, 2016.

FERC's final Environmental Assessment was issued on May 11, 2017.

In FERC's orders, the Commission approved the rule curve variance and adopted the Storm Adaptive Management Plan and Drought Management Plan. The Commission also reserved the right to modify these plans upon its own determination if necessary.

FERC lines out in the order the amended license is subject to the conditions submitted by ODEQ under provisions in the Clean Water Act as listed in an appendix issued June 30, 2016.

The amended conditions do not authorize any discharge or dredging of soil into the Neosho River of Grand Lake, calls for the surface elevation to be maintained between 744 and 742 as requested, for emergency and routine maintenance under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit, and annual testing of dissolved oxygen mitigation measures toward compliance.

FERC concludes in its ruling to allow any party the opportunity to file a request for rehearing within 30 days of the date of issuance of the order.

City and tribal leaders continue to be concerned with approval of the rule curve variance and area flooding without sufficient study.

"The Tribes are obviously disappointed with the decision. We have never attempted to harm GRDA’s ability to generate energy or the residents of northeast Oklahoma to enjoy Grand Lake," Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Chief Doug Lankford said. "We share those very interests. But we have Constitutional obligations to protect our lands and our people from the impacts of the Dam’s operations and we have only ever asked FERC to consult with us about impacts of the Dam’s operations."

"FERC’s decision sends the message that they are not willing to even discuss the matter with the Tribes, or with the other interested parties who have raised concerns with FERC, including the City of Miami, the United States Department of the Interior, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and, even the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office," said Lankford. "The Tribes are evaluating our options and have not decided on how we will proceed."

“We still believe that a review of overall Pensacola Dam operations as part of the current FERC relicensing process can result in changes to lessen the instances of flooding in Miami, increase the needed easements controlled by GRDA, and promote water levels that allow Grand Lake to continue being a regional benefit to Northeastern Oklahoma," Kriuthof said.

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at mstotts@miaminewsrecord.com or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.