STILLWATER, Okla. (DTN) -- In May 2019 when torrential rains hit Stillwater, much of downtown was protected from catastrophic flooding by a dry dam and spillway structure that few people would notice driving past it when flooding wasn't imminent.
But when it was needed, the small, dry, earthen dam on Stillwater Creek backed up the creek, filled to capacity, held back the water and slowly let it out until the flood receded away, basically saving millions in potential damage downstream.
"If it was to breach, there would be imminent loss of life, as well as infrastructure, housing and everything like that," said Anita Kaufman, district manager for the Payne County Conservation District.
The dam structure protecting the western flank of Oklahoma State University and parts of downtown is just one of nearly 12,000 small flood-control dams across the country built over the past 75 years across rural America. USDA estimates the dams offer roughly $2.2 billion in value through reduced flooding and erosion, as well as recreation, wildlife habitat and drinking water.
Until now, USDA's Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program has been below most people's radar. The program, often called PL-566 after the law that created it, usually gets about $225 million in annual funding, and is largely viewed as part of USDA's conservation programs. Watershed and Flood Prevention are housed in USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. Funding to upgrade or repair some of the old dams typically receives about $10 million.
Yet, as Congress works on a possible large-scale infrastructure package of more than $1 trillion in projects, USDA's watershed program could command more funding to cope with drought, flooding and drinking-water needs in rural America.
Citing "acute and critical need" in Western states, 220 groups in 15 states seeking roughly $50 billion in the next 10 years for water infrastructure earlier this month called on Congress to beef up Pl-566 spending with a request for at least $4 billion over the next eight years to build reservoirs and other irrigation projects in drought-stricken Western states.
OKLAHOMA: PL-566 CENTRAL
While there are upstream flood control dams in 47 states, nearly one in five of the dams was built in Oklahoma. The Sooner State came out of the Dust Bowl by extreme floods and the state's congressional delegation at the time pushed for building the dams that would stop the floods and hold back some water for dry times. Small watershed dams built to hold a few dozen acres of water cropped up everywhere.
"It's one of the most amazingly successful infrastructure programs, but unheard of by 99.5% of the general public," said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla. "These dams have worked so well that it's a quiet success story."
All told, Oklahoma has 2,107 upstream flood-control dams built through PL-566. There are so many of the dams that most people not around when they were built don't realize their main function is flood protection. So people naturally want to build homes or barns by the ponds and lakes.
"People will see this nice, flat place, and they'll want to do some dozer work and have a home site," said Dan Sebert, executive director of the National Watershed Coalition. "I've seen mobile homes, corrals, all sorts of things built on these kinds of structures."
Oklahoma had a problem when Lucas came to Congress because of legal liability questions as a growing number of the dams reached their expected 50-year lifespans. Changes in population and downstream growth of communities such as Stillwater mean the dams are older, but they are now protecting even more property and lives. Lucas and others pushed to carve out a dam rehabilitation program at NRCS to repair old structures and extend their lifespans another 50 years.
"My predecessors did a wonderful job in the past to get this program going and I've worked hard to extend the lives of the old ones, and tried to create some momentum for the program," Lucas said.
Parts of Stillwater were hit with 500-year floods in May 2019.
"The old dogs did what they were supposed to do. They impounded that water and released it slowly down," Kaufman said. "So even though they've gone past their life expectancy, they're still very much doing what they're going to do."
A large number of the flood-control structures never hold water until there is an actual flood. They dam up when heavy flooding hits then slowly meter out the water. The dams prevent roughly $100 million in flood damage losses annually in Oklahoma, said Gary O'Neill, the state's NRCS chief.
"We always have flooding. We'll come out of a drought with a big flood, and those dams provide a lot of benefits to rural parts of our state. If they were not there, we would have lots of flood damages," O'Neill said. "It's just really important infrastructure that not a lot of people think about."
More than 40 dams in Oklahoma are connected to rural water supplies. "If you go into some of the rural areas in our state, if we didn't have these structures providing that water, we'd been in a real hurt," O'Neill said, pointing to drought conditions in 2011. "And I think we could develop a lot more water with these structures."
OREGON SEES POSSIBILITIES
In a state facing extreme and exceptional drought conditions, along with record-breaking heat this week, there's a growing need for irrigation districts in Oregon to upgrade their canals and other irrigation conveyance. As the 220 Western agricultural groups noted in their request to Congress, "In Oregon alone, there are $2 billion worth of PL-566 projects that could be developed over the next four to five years."
About 80% of all water in Western states is diverted for agricultural use, but there are irrigation districts still moving water through canals that are a century old. Canals typically tend to lose about 30% of the water through seepage or evaporation as well.
April Snell, executive director of the Oregon Water Resources Congress, said water infrastructure is her group's top priority representing agricultural water suppliers in the state. The older canals and other delivery systems are putting a heavy emphasis on repairs and need to be upgraded. Snell said an informal coalition across Oregon is trying to elevate water needs. "Those efforts happen to be dovetailing with the various infrastructure bills and proposals out there right now," Snell said.
Snell added her group has been constantly pushing for increased investment in USDA's watershed program, as well as projects by the Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation. Snell said phrasing matters, such as using terms like "irrigation modernization" versus "fixing aging infrastructure," she said.
"Talking about aging infrastructure is not the sexiest, trendiest type of thing," Snell said. "Over the years, we've struggled trying to get the dollars to meet the myriad of needs that we have."
Attention to PL-566 also has grown over time. Until recently, it was difficult to get funding for rehabilitating watershed projects because funds were restricted to projects built under the original law.
"When I first started in 2007, PL-566 was pretty much just an archaic fund at the time," Snell said. "It didn't actually have much funds in it, or it was pretty limited about where those funds could go."
In 2018, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., was able to secure funding in PL-566 to rehabilitate some older projects but also open up funding for projects that improve both wildlife habitat and irrigation. Due to litigation by environmentalists, it was critical to develop watershed projects that not only provided irrigation in Oregon, but also addressed wildlife concerns. Groups were suing irrigation districts over reservoirs that affected a spotted frog on the Endangered Species Act list.
"At the time, we were on a path with litigation that would have potentially basically destroyed the agricultural community in central Oregon," Snell said. "So, now, we're on a different path, in part because of this program, as well as some other ongoing efforts to do collaborative projects that help the fish and frogs, as well as making sure farmers and ranchers can continue to grow food."
Groups that work on water resources in other Western states where they have few if any PL-566 dams are increasingly looking for ways to develop smaller watershed projects of their own, Snell said.
"There's just a lot more interest in the program right now," Snell said. "One of the things that's really good about how these dams are set up is that they are multipurpose, unlike a lot of the Bureau (of Reclamation) facilities that weren't originally built as multipurpose."
FOUR-DECADE PROJECT IN MISSOURI
Brad Scott, general manager of the North Central Missouri Regional Water Commission, has spent more than a decade piecing together 81 parcels of property to build a 2,352-acre reservoir near Milan, Missouri. In mid-June, Gov. Mike Parson signed a resolution allowing the water commission to consolidate bonds and get a USDA Rural Development loan to help pay for the project. Former Missouri Sen. Kit Bond had gotten the project approved for PL-566 funding in 2001, and the reservoir has been in planning stages in some form or another since then. When it finally holds water, the East Locust Creek Reservoir will be the largest PL-566 reservoir in the country.
"This project has been talked about for probably 40 years," Scott told DTN. "Once it's built, we'll be the only one of its kind anywhere."
The primary function of the East Locust Creek Reservoir will be drinking water for several communities in the region. Over the past 30 years, at least 28 water supplies had been closed as communities struggle to meet tighter EPA water quality standards. That has led Missouri to push for more regional water systems. The water challenges in the area are severe enough that about 60 of the area water systems would not be able to make it through their drought of record.
"So, once we bring our water supply on, that will make us much more survivable," Scott said.
That part of Missouri lacks the volume of surface water, and groundwater is almost impossible to treat because it is so briny. So, communities rely heavily on impoundments for their drinking water. The reservoir will serve as a 10-county regional water supply. The reservoir, once built, will also serve to address flood control and recreation.
NRCS will put in about $59 million of the projected $110 million total cost for the project. Still, the project took so long to develop that NRCS had to file a supplemental environmental impact statement on the project to update the assessment done on the area in 2006.
"We're down to the final permitting state, and we hope the lake portion of the project will be completed in four to five years from now," Scott said.
CLIMATE PRESSURES RISING
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack admitted to DTN he's not as versed on the PL-566 program as he probably needs to be, but the secretary is looking for ways to aggressively respond to systemic, mega-drought challenges now facing Western states. Time is a problem, Vilsack said, noting the length of time it has taken to get the Missouri reservoir from planning to construction.
"They were faced with a serious crisis for their communities -- drinking water -- and yet it took a long time to get it done," he said. "We don't have the time. We don't have the time to take 15 or 40 years to deal with this issue. I don't know how much water is being evaporated when the temperature in Portland, Oregon, reaches 117 degrees, but I'm thinking it's quite a bit. And the situations we're dealing with are going to be the new norm."
Vilsack and other cabinet secretaries spent part of Wednesday briefing President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on the Western drought and wildfire risks this year. The secretary said most USDA programs are not set up to address long-term drought facing producers. "Water is a big, big issue, and it's going to get bigger," Vilsack said.
"So, to me, I think we have to recognize a new reality here, which is that drought and climate change are interconnected," Vilsack said. "As temperatures get warmer, we're going to see longer and more sustained droughts. And I think we have to look at our method for preventing, mitigating, compensating for the impacts of drought so that it's not just a series of one-off programs, but we need a program that understands that you may be faced with a drought multiple years is in a very large amount of the United States."
If large growing areas are going to be faced with serious shortages at some point in time, that's going to create conflict between the needs of water in the city and the needs of water on the farm fields as well.
"Right now, what you are seeing is investors purchasing land in Western states, primarily for the water rights, and then selling or leasing those rights," Vilsack said. "That's something I think those of us concerned about the ability to continue to produce the food that we need are a little concerned about."
Building water storage often requires going through a gauntlet of government districts, regulations and funding, as well as securing the land needed from private owners.
"Any time you talk about storage, it's more complicated than it seems," Vilsack said. "So, to me, the key here is if you have recognized the severity of the problem, you can marshal the forces to actually get action to get something done." He added, "There has to be a recognition that the drought narrative has changed."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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