THE FRONTIER: ‘It will kill our town.’ Residents upstream from Grand Lake worry more flooding could be headed their way

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THE FRONTIER: ‘It will kill our town.’ Residents upstream from Grand Lake worry more flooding could be headed their way

In spring 2019, Miami, Okla., business owner Jim Nott watched as the nearby Neosho River once again left its banks and began creeping toward his South Main Street grocery store.

Nott, who has owned Nott’s Grocery in the northeastern Oklahoma town since 1975, has seen flood waters threaten the business several times over the years. A 2007 flood caused water damage that took him months to repair. Nott and other flood victims sued the Grand River Dam Authority, the state agency that oversees nearby Grand Lake, after the 2007 flood in a case that is still ongoing. More than 600 homes in Miami were damaged, 236 of which were completely destroyed, according to the city. 

Nott was ready in 2019, and put sandbags and plywood around the store to prevent new damage. Flooding is an inevitability that he likens to “living next to a volcano,” but he blames the Grand River Dam Authority for rising water levels at Grand Lake that he believes have contributed to the problem. 

“Hell, that’s their job — to manage the water correctly,” he said.

Flooding has long plagued Miami, which sits just north of the confluence of the Neosho River, the highly contaminated Tar Creek and Spring River. The rivers meet to form Grand Lake, a playground for Oklahoma’s monied and powerful. Multi-million dollar vacation homes and other properties dot the shoreline.

Higher lake levels usually mean better conditions for hydroelectric power generation, boating, water skiing and fishing for Grand Lake’s property owners. GRDA is a non-appropriated state agency mostly funded through the sale of power.

But Miami officials say it has left water nowhere to go but upstream after storms, flooding the town. The Grand River Dam Authority claims lake levels don’t affect flooding upstream. But David Williams, chief of the hydrology and hydraulics branch of the Corp of Engineers’ Tulsa division, said the agency is aware of backwater effects in the upper reaches of Grand Lake from a variety of complex factors.

And as far back as the 1940s, federal officials were concerned the dam was causing backwater flooding near Miami, records show. Some also place blame on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees releases from the lake when it reaches flood stage. 

Federal regulators are now weighing what role the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plays in preventing flooding at Grand Lake and whether state authorities bear any responsibility for the flooding in Miami. 

Over the years, the Grand River Dam Authority has successfully sought federal approval to gradually raise the water level of Grand Lake from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which licenses dams around the country. Now, Pensacola Dam is currently undergoing the years-long relicensing process, and city officials, as well as other groups and tribes in the Miami area, have called for the commission to take a harder look at the relationship between the dam and flooding in the area.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission once had the power to limit Grand Lake water levels but the agency’s authority was diminished after U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe inserted a rider into a 2020 defense bill to limit the agency’s ability to regulate the lake’s level and prevent it from requiring the Grand River Dam Authority to obtain flood easements or buy additional land from property owners outside of the project’s current boundaries, even if they are prone to flooding. 

Inhofe’s bill also  freed the Grand River Dam Authority to keep lake levels between three feet below flood stage and just under the lake’s flood level year-round after it obtains a new license from federal regulators.

Inhofe and his wife own property valued at more than $2.2 million at Grand Lake, according to county estimates. Other high-profile property owners around the lake include healthcare technology billionaire Clifford Illigcountry music star Toby Keith and former Gov. Mary Fallin.

Inhofe, who retired on Jan. 3, did not respond to questions from The Frontier.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission used Inhofe’s bill to reject the City of Miami’s request for the Grand River Dam Authority to compensate flooded property owners. A federal appeals court has since ordered the regulatory commission to reconsider and a new decision is pending. 

The chronic flooding has hampered the town’s efforts to bring in new businesses and required some homeowners to purchase flood insurance, city leaders said. Residents and businesses who have been flooded repeatedly are either taking federal buyouts from the Federal Emergency Management Administration or just trying to sell their properties.

“It’s killing our town. It hurts our tribes, our schools, our businesses,” said Miami spokeswoman Melinda Stotts. “People here are just welcoming. They’re tough. They’re used to this stuff. And they love their community. But who wants to deal with this all the time?”

Miami’s population has declined by about 6% since 2000 about 13,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census estimates. Nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.  

“Everybody here likes to go to the lake and swim and have fun and do all those things,” said Bo Reese, city manager for Miami. “But our houses go under and our town is dying.”

Area tribes including the Quapaw and Seneca-Cayuga nations, also say some of their ceremonial grounds and cultural sites have been inundated by flood waters because of the Grand River Dam Authority’s management. 

Over the last two decades, flooding at the main tributaries of Grand Lake has become more frequent and the waters are higher on average, according to data from the National Weather Service.

Miami city leaders say they worry higher lake levels will bring more floodwaters that threaten to wipe out the town. City and area tribal leaders have also raised concerns about pollution from heavy metals flowing from old mining operations upstream, but the Grand River Dam Authority has fought efforts for further study, saying the matter falls under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Dan Sullivan, CEO of the Grand River Dam Authority, said extensive studies commissioned by the agency show lake levels have little material impact on flooding upstream in Miami. But city officials commissioned their own studies they say disprove that claim. 

“It’s a very emotional thing to get your home flooded. I have not personally experienced that, but I know people who have, so I understand that, certainly on a human level,” Sullivan said. “But I think there has been a lot of energy spent looking in the wrong direction and not looking at what the facts show.”

Land for water

In a once-thriving neighborhood in west-central Miami, a frisbee golf park sits among the remaining houses. Several homes have for sale signs out front or have already been bought out because of flooding, ready to be demolished.

Similar flood buyouts have played out in other Miami neighborhoods and main thoroughfares, leaving empty lots or parks where houses and businesses once stood. 

Once a full buyout occurs, the property cannot be built on again. 

Miami’s fairgrounds, a city park and community swimming pool, once considered one of the largest in the state, are regularly inundated with flood water from the nearby Neosho River, making them unusable for weeks at a time, Stotts said. 

With no resolution in sight, the city has made efforts to begin shifting any new development further away from the river. But there is only so much land that can be used for development, and the city’s coffers are not flush with cash, Stotts said.

The Grand River Dam Authority and, to a lesser extent, the federal government purchased much of the land that was expected to be flooded to make Grand Lake in the 1930s and 1940s. But the purchases weren’t adequate to prevent surrounding communities from future flooding, said Jack Dalrymple, Miami’s city engineer. 

Federal documents Dalyrmple provided to The Frontier show that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was aware of the danger of flooding upstream from the dam since at least 1942 and a consultant recommended buying out land owners in Miami.  

Archived documents from the Corps of Engineers from 1957 show the agency recommended that Miami-area property owners be paid for damages if flooding occurred, rather than the federal government proactively buying additional land, because it would be cheaper.

Sullivan said he believes federal authorities should purchase more land or easements, but it could come with major drawbacks for Miami. Land buyouts would kill any chances for future development and could decimate the town. 

While Parker said previous city leaders have unsuccessfully tried negotiating with the Grand River Dam Authority to work out a solution for the town’s flooding, he had hoped he would be able to reach a deal shortly after being elected.

“They all tried the same thing I tried. GRDA does not want to fix this because it doesn’t benefit them financially,” he said. 

Sullivan said he understands the frustration of some of the residents, but that the anger is misplaced.

“It’s a very emotional thing to get your home flooded. I have not personally experienced that, but I know people who have, so I understand that, certainly on a human level,” Sullivan said. “But I think there has been a lot of energy spent looking in the wrong direction and not looking at what the facts show.”

Brannen Parrish, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Tulsa district, said Grand Lake is considered a state reservoir, and the only jurisdiction the Corps has over the dam is ordering water releases once the lake level at the dam gets to flood stage. 

While the Corps is not opposed to acquiring additional easements or land to address the flooding issue, it cannot do so without Congressional approval and funding to make those buys, an agency official said. 

The Corps is currently working with the city of Miami to identify flood-prone areas and evaluate mitigation strategies.

The exact role the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plays on Grand Lake is a question the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is currently considering. In January 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a ruling in favor of the city of Miami, ordering the federal regulator to determine what role the Corps plays in preventing flooding and whether the Grand River Dam bears any responsibility for the flooding in Miami.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has yet to issue a subsequent ruling in response to the court order.

Water rising

Flood water from the Neosho River forced Steve and Terri Barnes to flee their home just west of Miami and the Neosho River in 2007. When Steve Barnes later returned on a flat-bottom boat, he found that water had almost completely engulfed his home. 

For the next 18 months, the Barnes lived in a small FEMA trailer nearby while they worked to restore the house. The ceiling and roof were the only things that didn’t have to be replaced or repaired, they said.

The Barnes could not afford flood insurance at the time, but FEMA was able to provide them with one-time funding to repair their home. Floodwater crept across the surrounding pastures toward the Barnes’ home again in 2019, but luckily stopped rising before it got to their home. 

“Flood insurance is outrageous. There’s no way we can afford it. We would have to rob a bank or something,” Terri Barnes said.

Like other residents in the Miami area, they feel that Grand River Dam Authority has not been forthright about flooding risks associated with the dam.

“They say there’s no backwater effect. I don’t believe them,” Steve Barnes said.

Bo Reese, Miami’s city manager, said promises from the dam’s original engineer in 1938 to lower the lake levels in advance of heavy rain and flooding upstream were not kept, and that the Grand River Dam Authority has an incentive to keep the lake levels high for better electrical generation.

In response, Sullivan said Grand River Dam Authority’s plan for higher lake levels will not cause harm upstream and will also benefit its utility customers and recreation on Grand Lake.

Residents and city officials have also said they are concerned about another effect of the flooding and the dam’s possible impact on the river — sediment buildup.

Norman Hildebrand Jr., second chief of the Wyandotte Nation, said he has watched over the years as streams flowing into the Neosho and Spring rivers have become impassable by boat due to sediment build up, and as structures that once extended into deeper water have been swallowed by sediment.

“Anytime you stop the flow of that much water, you’re going to have sediment,” Hildebrand said. 

Tar Creek, a stream that is contaminated with heavy metals from mining waste, flows through Miami into the Neosho. 

City officials and the Miami Tribe, which has lands that border Kansas in Ottawa County, asked federal authorities to require the Grand River Dam Authority to study contaminated sediment downstream from Tar Creek. The tribe’s monitoring has also shown elevated levels of heavy metals in the flora and fauna in the area.

But The Grand River Dam Authority opposed the study, even though it had the support of multiple state and federal agencies and area tribes. The agency claims the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should be responsible for any future studies on pollution.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commision has not yet approved any further study on contaminated sediment.

Vacant lots in Miami while Grand Lake real estate market booms

As a teenager in the 1980s, Miami Mayor Bless Parker lived in the town’s long-since vanished Eastgate neighborhood.

Then the flood of February of 1985 hit, inundating Eastgate with water from the Neosho River and a nearby sewage lagoon. At the Parker house, the water got up to 3 feet and 4 inches, photographs from the time show. His mother, Margaret Parker-Anderson, was livid. She painted a black line around the house at the water line, wrote the date and water level on the house, and on a nearby shed wrote “Doesn’t flood Hell.”

“They sold these houses to everybody and told them it didn’t flood,” Parker-Anderson said.

Today, there’s nothing but tall native grass where rows of family homes once stood in Eastgate after Federal Emergency Management Agency buyouts in 2008 and 2009. The government purchased and razed homes after flood water repeatedly inundated the community.

Meanwhile, real estate values downstream on Grand Lake are white-hot. One real estate firm ranked Grand Lake as fourth in its national Hot Lakes list for 2023, with an average home listing price of $449,000.