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FERC holds Grand River Dam Authority responsible for Northeast Oklahoma flooding 

The Pensacola Dam on Grand Lake
Oklahoma Department of Transportation
The Pensacola Dam on Grand Lake

After decades of frequent flooding in Miami and other Northeastern Oklahoma towns along the Neosho River, a federal regulatory agency has determined the Grand River Dam Authority is responsible. Now, GRDA has been ordered to purchase frequently flooded lands upstream of Grand Lake.

Lee Uto has lived in his house in Miami for more than three decades. It sits along the banks of the Neosho River.

On July 5, 2007, the river rose to engulf Uto’s house.

“They were holding the lake levels pretty high because of the ongoing bass tournament and other recreational issues going on,” Uto recalled in an interview with KOSU last year. “We got 18in of rain over the course of about a week.”

Without power for around three weeks, Uto stayed in his home and kept watch over the neighborhood.

“Here, at this place, we never evacuated,” Uto said. “We became an island.”

The first floor of Uto’s house sits a few feet off the ground. His basement filled with water, but he fared better than his neighbors, whom he shuttled out of their flooded homes in a canoe.

In 2014, it happened again. Uto and his wife carted their most important possessions to his in-laws’ house in preparation, but this time the water only crept to the top of their driveway.

“A couple more inches it would have been in the garage, and then it would have been in the basement again,” Uto said.

Uto’s story isn’t unique. That 2007 flood filled nearly 600 buildings with water — 150 homes and businesses were so damaged, FEMA didn’t allow their owners to renovate them. And in Miami, flooding carries special risks due to toxic metals from nearby abandoned mines.

“There are so many folks who have been living with the burden of what it means to lose everything, and the added burden of wondering if that loss was preventable,” said Martin Lively, who lives in Miami and works for LEAD Agency, a local environmental justice group.

Many Miami residents, activists and government officials have long held that the floods are worsened by the way officials manage the Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees downstream. The Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA) controls the Pensacola Dam, which holds water in Grand Lake and generates hydroelectric power.

In 2018, the City of Miami filed a complaint saying GRDA had repeatedly flooded 13,000 acres of land upstream of the lake. The city said GRDA’s dam operations were responsible for 14 floods from 1992-1995 and another 23 floods from 2007-2010.

Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) determined the city is right. FERC, which issued GRDA’s current license to manage the Pensacola Dam in 1992, ordered GRDA to purchase the land it has flooded.

But the situation isn’t cut and dry. At the time Miami filed its complaint, Sen. Jim Inhofe represented Oklahoma in Congress and chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee. In 2019, Inhofe added an amendment called the Pensacola Act to a 1,700-page defense spending bill.

“What this act attempts to do is create what I consider to be special rules for the relicensing of the Pensacola Dam at Grand Lake, and only the Pensacola Dam at Grand Lake,” said Lively.

Congress passed the legislation, including Inhofe’s amendment, which specifically limited FERC’s authority to regulate water levels and set project boundaries for the Pensacola Dam. The amendment also suppressed tribal authority over federal land relevant to the dam.

At first, FERC ruled it could not offer Miami flood relief because of the Pensacola Act. But upon appeal, the D.C. Circuit Court ruled in Miami’s favor and bounced the complaint back to FERC, saying the Pensacola Act may not apply to GRDA’s existing license for dam operations.

Another sticking point involves the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ role in flood control. The Corps directs dam operations of the “flood pool,” when the water level is between 745 and 755 feet, although GRDA remains responsible for physically operating the dam.

According to FERC’s order from last week, the Pensacola Dam is causing increased flooding in Miami, and GRDA is responsible for the lands it floods.

However, GRDA holds that the Corps is responsible for purchasing lands flooded upstream of the Pensacola Dam.

“If the federal government is committed to providing flood control measures, we believe they need to provide adequate easements,” a GRDA spokesperson said in a statement after FERC’s order.

In the next four months, GRDA must file a report with FERC about flood frequency upstream of the Pensacola Dam to determine where it must acquire easements.

“GRDA is evaluating this order and actively assessing all our options,” said a GRDA spokesperson.

This isn’t the end of Miami’s struggle with GRDA. Nearly 500 people and businesses who have suffered from repeat flooding, including Lee Uto and his wife, filed a civil suit against GRDA in 2008. That suit is ongoing.

Meanwhile, GRDA’s existing license to operate the Pensacola Dam is expiring, and relicensing discussions have been fraught. GRDA wants the authority to raise lake levels throughout the year, which upstream residents believe will subject them to even more flooding.

Lively said last week’s order has implications for the relicensing process. The Pensacola Act specifies that FERC can set rules and regulations on the dam to protect safety and human health.

“This decision is made by the same people who will handle the dam relicensing,” Lively said. “Those people have ruled definitively that the operation of the dam does make upstream flooding worse. That's going to take a great big question mark out of the relicensing process.”

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Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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