VINITA — A delegation of local city, tribal and state legislators attended the monthly board meeting of the Grand River Dam Authority to voice their concerns over an amendment — buried in a defense-spending bill — that protects the GRDA from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that was Sec. 6021 of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, introduced by U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK).
It was intended to clarify federal authorities and responsibilities relating to the Pensacola Dam and reservoir and specifically, the conservation pool and flood pool.
Inhofe is chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
Portions of Miami and the surrounding area were under water due to floodwaters from the Neosho River and Tar Creek.
Miami officials didn’t learn about the Inhofe amendment until just before the July 4 holiday — and that was from members of the Washington, D.C., press corps, State Representative and Miami city attorney Ben Loring said.
“We’re disappointed we didn't hear from any of the GRDA representatives; we were disappointed we didn’t hear from any of Sen. Inhofe’s representatives and we allowed to have any sort of input as to how what we consider to be a very, very significant change in the rules.”
“It cut the legs out from under the city as well as the tribes,” Miami Mayor Rudy Schultz told the GRDA board at its Wednesday, July 10, meeting. “We’re very unhappy about that and we’ve made it known to the senator. We found out yesterday (Tuesday) that one of your board members was not aware that Dr. Townsend (Darrell Townsend, Director of Ecosystems Management) on behalf of the GRDA had expressed support for that amendment. I am curious if the rest of the board is aware of that amendment. Is it something that the board has voted to support, if not, I would request the board withdraw its support of the amendment. Let the process work as it’s supposed to.
“If the City of Miami wins some arguments or loses some arguments, that’s the way it goes. But to change the rules in the middle of the game is very unfair.
The “conservation pool” (all land and water of Grand Lake below the elevation of 745 feet) and “flood pool” (all land and water of the lake between 745 feet and 755 feet) is at the center of the dispute.
The GRDA was created by the Oklahoma state legislature in 1935 to control, develop and maintain the Grand River waterway and Pensacola Dam at Langley.
Now it is responsible for the entire Grand River watershed, including Lake Hudson and Kerr Dam, as well as the Illinois River.
Schultz said that as a member of the council for 13 years, ever since 2000, the city has been told by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and others the time to raise these issues is during the relicensing process.
The current 30-year GRDA license expires on March 31, 2022.
In 2016, GRDA sought a license amendment from FERC that would allow lake levels to be higher than they already were in order to reduce the risk of grounding boats late in the summer.
“We’re trying to play by the rules and now, Senator Inhofe, with the support of the GRDA it appears, is trying to change those rules midstream. We don’t like that and we would like to know how the board feels about it and particularly would like the board to withdraw support of the amendment.”
The $750 million spending bill — S. 1790 — passed the Senate 86-8 on June 27 and is headed to the House of Representatives. It still faces a conference committee before it goes to the desk of Pres. Donald Trump.
Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma Chief Ethel Cook, who, on behalf of the Inter-Tribal Council (of which she is chairman) said Tribal sacred lands and cemeteries are affected by the repeated flooding.
“It is really like a slap in the face to the Native American tribes,” she said, encouraging the GRDA take more time to reach an agreement.
“Our focus right now is not so much the merits of what is trying to be done, but it's the method,” Kruithof said. “We were made aware of it just two days before the U.S. Senate voted on that section. We had no opportunity talk about it.”
Kruithof suggested more time be taken before any action is taken by the GRDA.
“Let’s all sit together and we might actually come together as one for some of these solutions,” he said. “We don't take any joy in what we’re seeing downstream from us with the lake levels. We know something needs to be done. We would like to be your partner in that.
“That’s the point we are making: let’s put the brakes on this right now, let us work together with you on this then come up with a solution that works for everybody.”
Dan Sullivan, GRDA chief executive officer, told the local group: “I can tell you that I am in favor of the amendment and what it stands for. It is not changing the game. What it does is codify the reality of where we are. If you go back to 1946 and 1947 when the federal government returned control of this project to GRDA after the war, the GRDA was required to give to the government all lands owned above elevation 750. That’s because the conservation pool has been 745.”
He continued, “That has always been the case and that has been our argument for a long time. I know the City of Miami has filed complaints in our licensing file, saying we previously had not brought the lake down fast enough from flood conditions. Again, that is at the direction and confirmation of the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers. If FERC were to take over jurisdiction within that flood control pool, then you have competing jurisdictions, competing interests that don’t take into consideration all the other 38 lakes and reservoirs that the Corps controls.”
GRDA board chair Tom Kimball reported that the board has taken no action as far as the Inhofe amendment is concerned.
“We will have a difference of opinion,” he said. “I hate that we do. We love working with our tribes. We consider the tribes partners.
Kimball said when he took his seat on the board seven years ago, “most of our customers hated us.”
“Our relationship with Miami, I believe then, was much worse than it is today. I believe our relationship has improved dramatically since Dean has come on board and has gotten the dialogue going in a much better way.
“We are a very customer friendly board.”