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June 27, 2019

Inhofe, Lankford, Hern Urge Corps to Prioritize Tulsa Levees

U.S. Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Congressman Kevin Hern (OK-01) wrote a letter to urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete feasibility study for the Tulsa-West Tulsa levees by the end of this year.

The feasibility study is a key first step to modernizing the aging levee system. The members also request the immediate implementation of critical improvements following the conclusion of the study.

The letter is available here and pasted below.

Dear Assistant Secretary James and Lt. General Semonite,

            We write urging that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) take all appropriate measures to complete the Tulsa West Tulsa Levee System Feasibility Study before the end of this calendar year to ensure necessary upgrades to the system can be included in the President’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget request to Congress early next year. Further, we urge the immediate implementation of the critical improvements to the levee system upon the conclusion of the study.

            The recent, devastating flooding along the Arkansas River made clear how dependent much of Tulsa County’s critical infrastructure is on a 75 year old levee system. Moreover, this most recent flood event lasted more than seven days, putting incredible strain on the aging levee system. More than ten years ago, the U.S. Army Corps rated the Tulsa West Tulsa levees as “unacceptable”, making clear the need and urgency for modernization and upgrades. Without improvement, it is unclear how much longer the levee system can continue to provide critical protection to the Tulsa County community.

            The ongoing Feasibility Study must be completed so structural improvements to the system critical to reducing the risk of failure during future flood events can be completed. The improvements should utilize current, state-of-art techniques wherever feasible to minimize future risks to life and property and to reduce future maintenance requirements associated with older techniques utilized in the existing levees.

            The Tulsa West Tulsa Levee System protects thousands of Oklahomans and more than $2 billion in public and private infrastructure. Finalizing the Feasibility Study before the end of this calendar year would enable the necessary upgrades to be included in next year’s budget process—ensuring the levee system can continue to protect Oklahomans for another 75 years.



 Key Background:

Securing the funding for the feasibility study has been something Sen. Inhofe and the delegation have worked on extensively:

On December 9, 2016, the Senate authored S. 612, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, which passed with a strong bipartisan vote of 78-21 and included a number of provisions integral to Oklahoma. Sen. Inhofe included a provision in the WIIN Act that required the Corps to complete the feasibility study after inspections revealed that the Tulsa levees, originally built in the 1940s, were not compliant with federal standards.

On March 1, 2017, Sen. Inhofe questioned General Semonite at an EPW hearing on the Tulsa levees, saying in part:

Senator Inhofe: General Semonite, in my hometown of Tulsa we have nearly 20 miles of levee, a system that was built by the Corps of Engineers back in the 1940s. We have about 10,000 people living within that. We have $2 billion of infrastructure, including a refinery, a very large refinery. Seventy years old, they are desperate and in need of repair and upgrades. Congress authorized a feasibility study and expedited budget consideration in last year’s WIIN Act. That was our effort. With the risk assessment taking over a year longer than promised, Tulsa is concerned about more delays in the lack of 46 the Corps prioritizing the project. It is my hope that we can get this done. Now, I am sure that you looked at that before, in preparing for this hearing. Our concern is these are old and there is not a week that goes by when I am back that this isn’t called to my attention. What kind of a commitment can you make that we are going to get this thing started?

General Semonite: Thanks, Senator. You bring up a good point. When you talk about levees, I think right now we have about 15,000 miles of levees that we constructed, but the Corps actually only has about 2,500 of those that we actually maintain. So we have to be able to continue to reach out to find out what can we do to assist. Several people here have talked about everybody has to pull their share to be able to work side-by-side. On this particular one, this goes back to that flood risk management study and to be able to make sure that we can review this, get this thing done, and understand how we are going to be able to come through on that. I don’t know exactly the details of where we are at on that, and I would like to have my staff come back to you on it.

Senator Inhofe: It would be a good idea. And I would like to ask that you personally look at this because it is something that should not have gone this long and it is critical.

On November 9, 2017, Sens. Inhofe and Lankford sent letters to OMB Director Mick MulvaneyDeputy Assistant Secretary of the Army Douglas W. Lamont and Lieutenant General Todd T. Semonite requesting that the Tulsa and West Tulsa Levee System feasibility study be prioritized in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers FY18 Work Plan and included as a new start in the FY 2019 budget request.

On December 6, 2017, Sen. Inhofe questioned R.D. James on the Tulsa levees during his confirmation hearing to be Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, saying in part:

Senator Inhofe: I have one thing I want to actually specifically talk about, because it is probably my greatest single frustration with the Corps. The cities of Sand Springs, Oklahoma and Tulsa, Oklahoma are protected by a levee system that was built in the 1940s, and the infrastructure is beyond its useful life. The system is in desperate need of repair and protects $2.2 billion in homes and business infrastructure along the Arkansas River, including two large refineries. Tulsa citizens have provided $15 million in funding for the project, but were stalled in moving forward because the feasibility study needs a new start. I have it on good authority that the project was on the Corps’ list to receive one of the six new starts that Congress appropriated last fiscal year, but, in the end, only one new start was awarded. So, the commitment I want to extract from you is that you will commit to ensure that this project remains a priority for the Corps as Congress finalizes their fiscal year 2018 appropriations to include new starts for studies. Can I get that?

Mr. James: Yes, sir, absolutely you will get it from me. If it was one of the proposed six this past year, I can’t see any reason that it wouldn’t remain on that list. It will become a priority to me. And another priority to me will be the shape our infrastructure is in in this Country. Why are we limiting ourselves to six new starts proposed and one new start accepted? That is bothering me. Senator Inhofe. Well, that bothers me too, and I appreciate that.

In February of 2018, Sen. Inhofe spoke with OMB Director Mick Mulvaney to highlight the need for Tulsa-West Tulsa levees modernization to advance, given the fact the levees were classified as “high risk” by the Army Corps of Engineers.

On July 5, 2018, Inhofe announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted his request to fully fund the Tulsa-West Tulsa levees project through supplemental appropriations for disaster relief and recovery funding. By including the feasibility study in the emergency supplemental, the Tulsa levees project can actually move forward faster than if it had been included in the annual work plan.

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