Three FERC scoping meetings held last week in Langley, Grove, and Miami offered an opportunity for input on GRDA's relicensing request.

MIAMI – The comments were as different as a flooded home and dry boat dock. The three FERC scoping meetings held last week in Langley, Grove, and Miami offered an opportunity for input on GRDA's relicensing request for the operation of the Pensacola Project. All comments on the scoping document are due Mar. 13, 2018.

GRDA’s current license expires Mar. 31, 2022 and the lengthy five–year relicense process request for the operation of the Pensacola Project 1494-438 is underway.

A videotaped message was shown at each meeting featuring GRDA’s CEO Dan Sullivan with a message including what he called the “Five E’s” regarding the priorities of the project; Electricity, Economic Development, Environmental Stewardship, Employees, and Efficiency. A panel of FERC’s staff and experts from various fields also attended each meeting to listen to the commentary and answer questions as possible.

The purpose of the meetings was to gather commentary and to help determine further studies to fill information gaps, according to FERC’s Project Coordinator Rachel McNamara.

She told attendees GRDA has not made any proposals for land use, or easement purchase in the relicense application Scoping 1 Document.

FERC’s South Branch Chief Stephen Bowler explained study requests must meet FERC criteria.

“People need to do the best job they can in meeting the criteria,” Bowler said when asked how stakeholders with limited knowledge of the science of hydrology can make study requests. “Even if it’s imperfect were going to review it.”

Tourism and recreation

The Langley meeting drew few attendees outside of those directly employed by GRDA with the exception of Cherokee Nation and Miami leaders, fish and wildlife biologists, and the president of a local resort.

“GRDA, serves, works to serve, has the purpose of serving, partially as a development agent, and I want to say they have done that extremely well,” Shangri-La Resort’s Director of Communications & Government Relations Mike Williams said. “The management of the lake level, the amendment that was approved back in August is so important.”

Williams used the example of Lake Travis in Texas where he said water levels drop and residents and tourists are “fleeing the area” comparing Grand Lake’s operation under GRDA as beneficial to area recreational and real estate value and growth.

“With all due respect to what was mentioned about the Miami and Ottawa County areas, this has been studied to death for 22 years. There is no need to reinvent that wheel again," said Williams. "We were able to develop at Shangri-La by a growth process due to the assistance and the regional approach to things by GRDA as they helped us to understand the FERC regulations.”

Williams said FERC’s regulations of the Pensacola Project are logical and reasonable.

“I can’t say how helpful GRDA has been to us in developing that process, a 240 slip marina, most of our golf course adjoins GRDA property lakefront, our hotel is adjacent to that and the clubhouse. So, with GRDA’s help, and assistance since 2007 to 2010 we went from five employees to 80 employees…again thanks to GRDA. We were able to work with GRDA to provide jobs and economic development.”

In 2017 Shangri-La grew to 270 employees again with GRDA’s help with FERC permitting for $60 million in shoreline improvements, according to Williams. He went on to express his appreciation to GRDA saying they have helped with other individual business, community and civic projects at Grand Lake while remaining good stewards of environmental impacts.

“I know as you travel around here you will see the camaraderie that GRDA personnel have in their communities,” Williams said.

Another attendee said both economic and socioeconomic issues should be considered when looking at GRDA’s proposal for operation.

Native American Tribal officials from affected tribes, including the Miami, Cherokee, and Wyandotte Nations attended different meetings and asked for government-to-government notification, the development of a historic properties management plan, and consultation under Article 106.

A tour of the Pensacola Dam, power plant and spillways was offered following the first meeting Wednesday as well as a look at the Wolf Creek Marina and facilities on Grand Lake.

Grove City Manager Bill Keefer said GRDA worked with the City of Grove to develop the project which has hosted numerous fishing tournaments from 50 to 100 boats and thousands of spectators including the prestigious Bass Master qualifier, drag boat racing, and community events this past year.

“It’s been a good partnership,” Keefer said. “The economic impact of this facility for Grove alone is very significant…Tourism and fishing is our city’s bread and butter. It’s a big contributor to sales tax receipts, to our economy and to our community.”

Keefer and Grove Mayor Ed Trumbull did not have Grove’s specific sales tax figures available tied to tourism and recreation but said the lake level is essential to the economic success of the project’s use.

“Personally I can attest that it’s hard to load a boat when the lake’s level is down,” Trumbull said.

Asked if last year’s flooding caused any issues at Grand Lake Trumbull said, “Well, you will see that every once in awhile. We did have it come pretty close, pretty high up.”

“We’ve been fortunate that the three flooding events that have occurred in the past couple of years only really impacted one event, for the most part the tournaments were able to work around it,” Keefer said. “Worse case scenario, we’d be standing in about a foot of water up here.”

The Grove and Miami meetings drew a similar attendance of 40 to 50 residents and local government and tribal officials, but the tone and comments of these meetings were vastly different. Only three attendees spoke out or asked questions at the Grove meeting, while 13 attendees spoke out at the Miami meeting and very different viewpoints were shared at each.

Boating, docks, and swimming

A lone comment from a Grove resident at Wednesday night’s meeting praised GRDA and FERC for allowing the lake levels to raise during past years since 1992 when GRDA received its first license for operation of the project. FERC can relicense the project for 30, 40 or 50 years.

“In the video one of the five E’s was efficiency. Our concern is some of that efficiency comes with higher lake levels, which is really paid for by the citizens of Miami when they get flooded,” Miami Mayor Rudy Schultz said. “We think that all the ratepayers should somehow help with that expense. It’s no secret that we’ve had an adversarial relationship with GRDA for quite a few years as the lake level has raised repeatedly and we’ve flooded more frequently. We see this as an opportunity to collaborate with GRDA in a move toward positive solutions. We hope that this is a win-win project.”

In contrast, a Grove resident praised GRDA’s operation of the lake.

“I have been at the lake since 1980, and GRDA has continued to improve and do what I think it takes to move into the next generation on managing the lake. We have improved year in and year out - our beaches, our water quality, and everything’s improved,” Grove resident Lea Carson said. “I think GRDA does a great job of trying to work with the communities, and I think it will continue to improve as time goes on. The management by GRDA just continues to improve.”

Homes, health, and flooding

In stark contrast, were comments from 13 Miami and Ottawa County residents and officials asking for operations to control the repetitive flooding believed to be caused by backwater flooding, higher lake levels or poor flood pool control. Environmental, infrastructure, real estate, and property valuation damages, or land use for easement purchase and health concerns were raised by many as well. The commentary on the economic impact were extreme opposites from the two communities.

Miami’s City Manager Dean Kruithof said in part, “GRDA and FERC must recognize that the City and its citizens have waited much too long for a solution. We recognize that this relicensing process may be our last chance to get things right, and we have no intention of missing that opportunity. If GRDA and FERC are willing to work with us, we will be your steadfast partners. But if not, we will take whatever steps are necessary to protect our community."

Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Chief Doug Lankford said tribal allotments are affected. He said tribal members enjoy the lake and electricity produced by the project but have suffered greatly from the flood impacts. Lankford called for a full upriver study of all tributaries and the watershed and dredging at Twin Bridges and asked FERC to follow federal laws.

“When roads are closed our membership cannot get to the Indian Health Clinic. They can’t get to the doctor. Emergency vehicles can’t reach them. They can’t get to work,” Lankford said in part. “What we need to work toward is a way to control the flooding in our area…If this was a brand new dam going in, these studies would be done, full studies, not partial studies. That study needs to happen and a full Section 106 review needs to happen. Those laws didn’t exist to protect tribal citizens, but those laws do exist today.”

Second Chief of the Wyandotte Nation Norman Hildebrand supported Lankford’s commentary. Hildebrand also voiced concerns about the effects of sediment and flooding on tribal members near where the Grand River (Neosho River) and Spring River meet and flow into Grand Lake.

“We’ve created a real nice community down there, duplexes for our elders to live in the Wyandotte area so we can take care of them. When that causeway floods they can’t get to Miami,” Hildebrand said. “I just hope they take our concerns seriously.”

Seneca Cayuga Tribal member and Faithkeeper of the tribe’s longhouse, William Tarrant said studies have not taken in complete consideration of impacts on tribal allotments, “We’ve lost ceremonial places, we’ve lost gathering for medicines, hunting areas, fruits plants and all this is gone.”

Tarrant asked that all affected tribes be informed and consulted with by FERC and GRDA as promised for preservation of tribal interests.

“Living in Miami we know that if it rains real hard we lose the south end of our town,” Tarrant said. “Things need to be done the right way before we lose any more…This summer when the rule curve passed the water was so high, the highest I’ve ever seen on a cliff right by our ceremonial grounds. So, what it’s doing is endangering our religious beliefs, our religious places. I hope that if you were concerned about your personal church flooding, that’s the same thing we’re worried about.”

A full environmental impact study was asked for by several of the commenters.

Attorney Larry Bork, who has represented a number of plaintiffs, 600 initially now down to 445 property owners, in the Miami area against GRDA over 23 years, spoke extensively in regards to the operations of the lake. He said all prior studies have only covered portions of the affected project area.

“You’ve heard it before, but we are requesting a comprehensive flood mapping study that identifies the elevations, but then also focuses on potential remedies for the increased frequency, elevation and duration of flooding across the entire operation of Pensacola Dam,” Bork said.

Bork said there is a significant inadequacy of easements purchased by GRDA since the lake was created.

“Every study that I’m aware of, and again I’ve spent thousands of hours looking at these, have come to the conclusion that there are thousands of acres of easements that have not been purchased that are affected by the operation of the dam,” he said.

Bork strongly urged affected residents and property owners to file comments with FERC.

LEAD Agency’s Executive Director Rebecca Jim said Tar Creek has been polluted for many years with health hazardous mining waste metals flowing downstream from the Tar Creek Superfund Site into the Neosho and other rivers and creeks, and on into Grand Lake.

She said the backwater flooding affects ponds, parks, neighborhoods, and school campuses creating greater potential of the pollutants being carried by the floodwaters and causing environmental concerns. She also spoke of a mold study and other health concerns left behind by the frequent and prolonged flooding of the area she believes should be included in the impact studies

“I have many concerns about the project being implemented in 2020,” Jim said. “FERC needs to keep being reminded that all of us are downstream… This is a town that was built beautifully located between this creek and river. They did that on purpose because they loved these waterways, and we hope that you will consider the future of this community and the people that live downstream.”

Several Miami and Ottawa County area residents have been overwhelmed by the impact of flooding on their properties and expressed frustration.

Miami resident Kenneth Ferris said he lives in a home that for many years has been flooded and GRDA has paid damages to the former owners accounted for in the property deed.

“I was curious because it didn’t say if they were sued, but it does say that GRDA did pay money for damages for flooding that property,” Ferris said. “I just wondered if you lowered the lake 10 or 20 feet would it flood anybody’s house or hurt anybody. It’s very simple, but it’s about money…If there was no money involved it would be easy to fix.”

Ferris said he even wonders if the stress of the flooding of his home lent towards his first wife’s demise from lung cancer.

Many commenters said floodplain remapping by FEMA issued because of more extensive and backwater flooding includes lands never flooded before GRDA’s operation of the dam for hydroelectric generation. Residents said they have been flooded out or must now buy expensive flood insurance and have experienced much lower property valuations.

“They’ve taken away our rights, they’re not paying me, nor is there a process set up for paying me for taking my rights away, and that’s not right,” Ferris said.

Miami resident Dixie Hernon said before purchasing a home in 1996, she was careful to check out her property and was assured her property did not flood.

“In July of 2007 our home, garage, and outbuilding all suffered major damage from the flood,” Hernon said. “We were not able to move back into our home for five months, and due to the extent of the flooding there were no places for us to move into.”

The Hernons used all of their limited financial resources and a small amount of FEMA assistance and home improvement loans trying to restore their home, she said, “But it wasn’t enough. We used credit cards and put ourselves deeply in debt just to get our home liveable. We could not pay our mortgage because of our home being in a flood with extensive damage, and because of our ages, being retired and living on social security. And we lost our savings.”

Hernon’s family spent hundreds of hours working to restore their home, property, and landscaping from water and silt.

“Also in its wake, we were left with ruined cars, pickups, and mud, silt, and snakes as well as strange vegetation that grew the next year,” she said. “That wasn’t the end of problems due to the flooding of our home and property. The next year the slab of our home settled and caused cracks, our front and back porches pulled away from the house and the floors of our storage building have rotted away. Our property has lost a large percentage of its value and our flood insurance has almost doubled and goes up every year, and even though the value of our home keeps going down the taxes continue to rise.”

She asked that FERC consider the impact of flooding on the safety and well being of Ottawa County residents.

Nedra Roye, 75, of Miami, said the flooding put Tar Creek water in her home and caused her home to be condemned, which in turn ruined her credit because of an unpaid mortgage on the property.

“I was told flood insurance would not pay off my mortgage because they would only insure the bottom floor of my two-story house. I hope this situation is solved before I die,” Roye said. “I look forward to seeing something constructive coming out of this whole situation.”

Farmers spoke of flooded out grazing land, pecan groves, and cropland no longer viable for harvest along with increased costs for working the flooded land.

Al Newkirk said he bought his farm and house in 1978 and it never flooded until the lake levels rose above the easements. He said the easements haven’t been purchased as required since 1992. Newkirk said he remembers a neighbor lady crying as she walked down the road after her home was condemned and she was forced to move.

“I’ve had to rebuild three times, as I mentioned I’m a slow learner…If you look at all those neighborhoods out there, they’re gone. They didn’t have any choice,” Newkirk said. “Most people got no compensation, they just slowly got drowned out… When you make these changes you need to be mindful of what you do affects everyone.”

If proper easements had been purchased by GRDA, Newkirk said, “If they had done that we wouldn’t be going through any of this crap. I wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be here,” he said pointing to the FERC staff. “We even flood in the drought years.”

Local physician Mark Osborn said Grand Lake was engineered when it was built for a lake level of 735 and for higher elevations project developers had to promise pre-release. He told the story of city fathers, one his own father Willie Osborn, taking part in a meeting with an economic developer and industry search agent.

“The week that guy came, there was water across all of the roads into town. They met at his hotel and he said, ‘Until you fix this problem, you’ll never get any industry here,’ and that’s what we’ve been dealing with since the 80s,” Osborn said.

Osborn said it’s been death to Miami and the area upstream of the lake by increments each time the lake level is raised.

“A friend of mine is a counselor to troubled youth and one of the things she tells them is, ‘Some people do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, and other people do the right thing so they won’t go to jail,’ and then she says the most interesting thing, ‘Either one of those is okay,’” Osborn said. “We have bore the brunt of everybody’s prosperity on our backs, and they’re not going to change anything unless you make them do the right thing.”

Mutually beneficial compromise is a goal Osborn and other commenters and tribal and city leaders said they hoped would occur with the re-licensure with GRDA as overseen by FERC.

“You are going to face tremendous political pressure to not do anything,” Osborn said. “And the question is, do science and engineering and facts matter more than money and pressure, that’s what it’s going to come down to. We hope you guys do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.”

Comments accepted

Once all comments are reviewed GRDA will submit a revised proposed study plan to FERC and an opportunity for stakeholder comment will be offered again.

Comments can be made by email until Mar. 13, 2018 on issues affecting the Pensacola Project and The City of Miami is offering free assistance to the public at the Miami Public Library.

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