Record rain creates problems for aging Oklahoma dams

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There are over two thousand flood control dams in Oklahoma.

You have probably seen them without realizing it.

Most of the dams look like farm ponds and they are on private land. Without them, thousands of Oklahomans could be in danger of losing everything.

Robert Hathorne with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission says,”Their primary purpose is to capture floodwater as it falls into a watershed and release that water slowly downstream.”

The dams were built in the 1950’s and 60’s after several floods in the first half century that devastated the state.

They were only meant to last about fifty years, and for one dam in Wayne, it’s been sixty years since it was built.

A gaping hole in the middle of the dam is spewing thousands of gallons of water that continue to erode the ground. Steve Schmitz is tasked with maintaining the Wayne Creek dam and 86 others.

He says repairs can’t come fast enough.

“If all this water was to come at once without the let down pipe-it would wipe out everything south of here”, says Schmitz.

Recent record rainfall has exacerbated the problem at the dam and caused overflow into a nearby emergency spillway which was still a muddy mess.

It’s only the second time since the dam was built that the spillway has flooded.

“Prior to their construction, flooding in Oklahoma was far more extensive than we see today and far more dangerous”, says Hathorne, who went on to say that before the network of dams was built, disastrous floods plagued Oklahoma. Floods like the 1934 flood in Hammond Oklahoma, that destroyed livelihoods and killed several people.

“What occurred was, homes were washed off foundations, families died, it was a tremendous disaster for the state”, said Hathorne who also pointed out that just in May alone, the dams are credited with saving the state over ninety one million dollars in damage from flooding.

The Oklahoma Conservation Commission has a yearly budget of one million dollars, and the money is dwindling fast due to recent repairs to dams like the one in Wayne.

The 2014 farm bill allocated thirty two billion in federal funding for projects like dam infrastructure, with a caveat.

The state must provide matching funds. So far, the state has not provided any extra funds.

Conservationists hope that the money comes in soon, before time runs out.

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