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Stormy waters

Climate change and the flood next time

Our climate continues to change—and with greater change comes more instability.

Joseph Rushmore

In mid-May, a powerful storm system ripped through northeastern Oklahoma. Much of that water made its way to Keystone Lake, prompting the Army Corps of Engineers to release water into the Arkansas River to compensate. About a week later, a second group of storms ravaged our area, causing tornadoes and dropping record-breaking amounts of precipitation. This, in turn, forced the Corps’ hand and caused them to gradually open the Keystone Dam further.

Floodwaters soon threatened communities. Parts of Sapulpa and Bixby were evacuated. On May 22, the entire town of Webbers Falls was evacuated due to the rising floodwaters. In Tulsa, the Arkansas River continued to rise. Sinkholes began appearing in roads and trails along the river. Parts of the Gathering Place were submerged for days. Riverside businesses like the River Spirit Casino and Blue Rose Cafe closed their doors. Mohawk Park flooded as Bird Creek surmounted its banks.

Meanwhile, Gov. Kevin Stitt and Mayor G.T. Bynum placed 66 counties in Oklahoma under a state of emergency as 215,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) was released from Keystone Dam.

As night fell on May 22, the region was battered by yet another storm surge. Two barges from the area lost their mooring and struck the dam, sinking below the waves and potentially damaging an already straining bit of infrastructure.

By noon the next day, the Arkansas was taking on 250,000 cfs from Keystone Lake. The following days saw more storms and tornadoes. The state of emergency expanded to cover all of Oklahoma. The federal government approved the disaster declaration and ordered more assistance to response efforts. The Arkansas rose from 21 to 23 feet, stopping just short of the 25 feet it reached in October 1986.

Precipitation continued in the Tulsa area and upriver, compounding the floods. The Corps lowered the dam again, ultimately releasing 275,000 cfs by May 26. On May 29, the Corps gradually raised the dam again, and by May 31 the dam was releasing 200,000 cfs, more than the 182,000 it is estimated to be taking in.

Unfortunately, more storms are on the horizon, both in the immediate future and stretching into the next years and decades. Our climate continues to change, and with greater change comes more instability.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released last year, attempts to outline the risks and impacts of climate change across the United States over the coming century.

Although more research is needed, the climate report shows some evidence that severe storms, tornados, hailstorms and other extreme weather events will increase in our area in the coming century. Storms are difficult to predict, but the Arkansas River gets its water from a huge area covering parts of northern Oklahoma and southern Colorado and Kansas. Increased storm activity anywhere in this watershed could increase our risk for floods.

It is known that extreme weather events like this cause stress to existing infrastructure. Dams, bridges, levees, roads and other crucial infrastructure built to withstand historical extremes will be exposed to greater strain than ever intended.

The authors of the report found that many dams and levees in our region, the Southern Great Plains, have gone uninspected and unmaintained. These responsibilities fall largely on local governments, many of which lack the funding and resources to fulfill them. Small towns and rural municipalities are especially vulnerable.

Compounding this issue, many of our region’s dams and levees are pushing the limits of their design life. Tulsa’s levees were built in 1945. Todd Kilpatrick, who spent the last six years as a levee commissioner, says the levee is past its expiration date. “I’ve been telling people for a long time that it’s a matter of when, not if,” Kilpatrick told the Tulsa World. “And now we’re living through the when.”

The climate assessment predicts that our region will increasingly experience swings from drought to flooding, much as we are experiencing now. This means that the soil will spend more time drying out, while moisture will come in ever briefer and more intense bursts that do not soak in as much as they run off. The net effect will be an ever drier, less fertile landscape and more potential for damaging floods.

The report found that droughts have increasingly ended with flooding in recent years. This happened in 2015, causing $2.6 billion in damages. It also predicted that “100 year floods,” or floods that have a 1 percent chance of happening every year, will occur more frequently. The study concludes that flood standards and floodplain management will have to change to accommodate these changes. Unfortunately this will be left to local governments, many of which are limited in funds and other resources.

Floods, as part of a pattern of extreme weather, can change the makeup of our ecosystem in unpredictable ways. These patterns open the door for invasive species like weeds, vermin, algae and fungi that can damage or contaminate crops.

The levees that run parallel to Charles Page Boulevard protect two oil refineries and scores of homes in Tulsa and Sand Springs. Water is currently seeping under them, flooding parts of this area. This can erode the sand and soil that makes the levees, further weakening them. Neighborhoods along some parts of the river were evacuated. Residents in some neighborhoods in Sand Springs complained they were evacuated on short notice.

While many people have been displaced by the floods, others have lost their livelihoods. One River Spirit employee said workers at the casino were told to evacuate and await further instructions. “They just told us that we would be evacuated and that they would update us,” they said.

Furloughed workers are being compensated, but some are still looking for new jobs. As of publication, it is not known for sure when the casino will reopen.

Eventually, this battery of storms will cease and the floods will recede. Some people are returning to their homes, reckoning with the damage done and attempting to wring order from chaos. Those of us lucky to have made it through unscathed will forget for a while, but not for long.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment tells us we can expect more extreme weather events in the coming years. Oklahoma, ever loathe to invest in infrastructure, is simply unprepared to face the dangers that the coming decades will bring. Our dams and levees need updating. Many bridges and roads are in need of inspection and maintenance, a responsibility that state-level authorities have happily passed down to the lowest levels of local government, at times drastically underfunded and unprepared to take on the task.

Without these vital reinforcements, the next flood could be the one that breaks the levee—the flood that drowns a neighborhood, or washes away a vital piece of infrastructure. Meanwhile, our nation’s leadership has taken a stance against protecting the environment, a trend that will intensify the aspects of climate change we are already experiencing. Whether the next election cycle reverses the trend or continues it, Oklahoma must be prepared for the worst.

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