MIAMI — Civic and tribal leaders in Miami thought they were following proper channels when working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Grand River Dam Authority in regard to flood control of the Neosho River.
But legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe — who has owned property on Grand Lake since the 1960s — has changed the whole playing field.
An amendment introduced by Inhofe that is buried in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act would protect the Grand River Dam Authority from FERC.
Sec. 6021 is intended to “clarify” responsibilities relating to the Pensacola Dam and reservoir and specifically, the conservation pool and flood pool.
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.
The wide-ranging NDAA — S.1790 — passed the Senate 86-8 on June 27 and will be debated by the House. It returned from its summer recess Monday.
“It’s just as unfair as it can be,” Miami City Manager Dean Kruithof said. “We were following the rules, or we thought we were — everything that FERC set up that we were supposed to do, all the filings and all the research we have done. Our whole point has been ‘let’s do the proper studies. Let’s see what this lake dynamic is. Let’s make the proper changes so we’re not flooding all the time, and then they pull what they pulled.”
Schultz hasn’t ruled out litigation if and when the bill becomes law.
“We are going to have to huddle up at that point and say ‘do we want to sue?” he said. “It’s unconstitutional. What is the best forum for that and what type lawsuit for that? I would be shocked if the Native American tribes didn’t come together in some sort of consortium.
“The city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the process already. All money well spent, but at that point to say we may spend another $1 million in lawsuits to fight this, I don’t know. My gut tells me it's the right thing to do.”
Schultz said the one upside to the whole matter is that it’s receiving more attention on a wider scale.
The New York Times did an extensive article last month.
Schultz likened the action as “power play politics,” and that “you don’t use that against your own constituents.”
He didn't know about the amendment until he began receiving phone calls from the Washington, D.C. press corps just before the July 4 holiday.
Several times a year Miami has had to cope with major flooding from the Neosho River as well as Tar Creek.
In May, numerous houses and businesses took on water, which closed three of the four roadways leading out of Miami.
Since the early 1990s, several hundred houses have been razed because they are located in the flood plain.
Also, Wyandotte Public Schools, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M and tribal lands have been affected by flooding on a regular basis.
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 were told for years to bide our time. The appropriate time to raise these sorts of issues is at relicensing,” Schultz said. “That’s what we are doing. We are going through the process and this denies us our process, administrative due process.”
“What is arguable is it deprives the property owners of due process,” Kruithof said. “The point is, it protects GRDA from having to buy the properties and that’s been the issue forever. They knowingly did not buy the properties.”
“Now they are saying it’s not going to be GRDA’s responsibility,” Schultz said.
Schultz said one thing the city’s legal team has recommended is that now is the time for citizens to be calling Inhofe.
The phone number for his Washington office is 202-224-4721.
His Tulsa office is located at 1924 South Utica #540 (918-748-5111).
A link for Inhofe’s email can be found at https://www.inhofe.senate.gov/contact.
There’s also a link to request a meeting on his website.
“If you are concerned about this, now is the time to call Sen. Inhofe’s office and let him know that you are concerned,” Schultz said.
In an appearance at the July GRDA board of directors meeting, Kruithof requested that the amendment be put on the backburner for at least a year.
“Get everybody together and let’s find a way to fix it,” he said. “A lot of the issues that they claim they are trying to do with this amendment, we support. There is a lot of finger pointing going on between the Corps and the GRDA and nobody actually takes responsibility. The Inhofe amendment doesn't fix it.”
During the board meeting, GRDA executive director Dan Sullivan said he is in favor of the amendment and what it stands for.
“It is not changing the game,” he said. “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.”
Miami’s fight is now receiving new pushback: Wagoner Mayor Albert Jones and other mayors downstream are writing letters to officials stressing objections from their point of view.
A call by the News-Record to Albert was not returned.
“The premise of the letter was ‘we don't think its right that one community upstream controls the whole lake,’ which is not what the Inhofe amendment is about,” Schultz said. “What our objection is why should one lake out of 1,700 be operated differently. That’s what the Inhofe amendment is about, operating the lake differently.”