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Oklahoma's Conservation Dams Don't Stick Out, But Save Lives and Tens of Millions Of Dollars

Johnny Pelley explains how to maintain dams at Salt Creek near Konawa, Okla.
Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma
Johnny Pelley explains how to maintain dams at Salt Creek near Konawa, Okla.

Oklahoma’s more than 2,000 conservation dams don’t stick out. They’re mostly on private land, out of sight and out of mind. But the flood control they provide saves the state tens of millions of dollars each year. Maintaining them takes hard, dirty work by salt-of-the-earth people fighting a constant uphill battle.

Johnny Pelley has been shoring up Oklahoma’s conservation dams for decades, and he’s passing his grizzled wisdom on to a new generation of specialists keeping this vital infrastructure intact.

Pelley is one of two watershed technicians for the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. He’s in charge of several of just a dozen or so watershed aids who oversee the maintenance of dams like this one, on the Salt Creek near Konawa.

Kyle Mcgregor is only in his early 20s, and he’s in charge of this district.

“I’ve got 87 of them in McClain County, and 17 high hazards, ''Mcgregor says. What a high hazard is, is whenever somebody’s built a house, and they live below the dam in the floodplain. I’ve got the most high hazards in the state.”

“The national average dam is now over 50 years old. I think it's 53 years old,” Zachary Hollandsworth says. “Most dams in the nation are now generations removed from when they were first built. And with that comes many problems with maintaining them for their future use.”

Zachary Holladsworth is a lead engineer for the Dam Safety Program at the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. He says over 75% of Oklahoma’s dams were built between 1950 and 1970. And as more homes, businesses and roads are built, the importance of these dams only grows.

“As time goes on more and more of our land is developed, ‘hazard creep’ happens in the areas downstream of our dams and that has an effect on how our dams operate and also the consequences of potential failures,” Holladsworth says.

Holladsworth is most concerned with the larger dams. Think Lake Eufaula, Grand Lake.

“Along our lakes and ponds, it’s estimated we’ve got between 55 and 56-thousand miles of shoreline,” Holladsworth says. “So we’ve got basically no natural lakes in Oklahoma, so we’ve constructed a lot of water front property.”

But back at the small dam on Salt Creek, the technicians and watershed aids are clearing brush, cutting down trees, and unclogging drains and pipes to protect local homes and county roads.

Trey Lam is the executive director of the Conservation Commission, and can’t overstress the importance of this kind of maintenance.

“We’re really emphasizing taking care of them now, because a dam like this, back when it was built, might cost 50-thousand dollars. Now, a dam like this would cost several million dollars. And it goes up every year,” Lam says.

Lam says with more flooding over the past several years and the growing impact of climate change, has come more financial support from the legislature. But the job is so big.

“Really, we should have one of these watershed aids — one staffer with equipment — for about every 75 dams. Right now, if you do the math, it’s closer to 200 dams per person,” Lam says.

Tammy Sawatzky is director of conservation services for the agency, and constantly works to inform the public about this important part of Oklahoma’s infrastructure, even the landowners who have these dams on their property.

“People don’t know these exist until there is a flood, and then they realize what the purpose of those are,” Sawatzky says. “But we still struggle every day educating the general public. So, the landowners that have these on their property... some of them, they aren’t really sure why they just can’t do anything they want with that dam.”

Dams across the state and the nation are getting older, and it’s crucial that this vital infrastructure continues to get funding. As climate change contributes to more frequent extreme weather events, these dams are becoming more important as time goes on — waiting to save lives from the next catastrophic event.

Logan Layden is a reporter and managing editor for StateImpact Oklahoma.
Nyk Daniels is KGOU’s Morning Edition host.
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