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February 06, 2020

Inhofe Urges Corps to Complete Tulsa-West Tulsa Levees Chief's Report

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) today sent a letter to Lt. General Semonite urging the Corps to take all appropriate measures to review and complete the Chief’s Report for the Tulsa-West Tulsa levees as soon as practical. He also urged that the Corps include financing recommendations to allow a 30-year repayment eligibility for this project.

The letter is available here and below.

Lieutenant General Todd Semonite

Chief of Engineers

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

441 G Street, NW

Washington, D.C. 20314

Dear Lt. General Semonite,

I urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) to take all appropriate measures to review and complete the Chief's Report for the modernization of the Tulsa-West Tulsa Levee system as soon as practical. Timely consideration will ensure the authorization for the construction of this project can be included in any water resources legislation this year. Furthermore, I urge that the Corps include financing recommendations in the Chief's Report to allow a 30-year repayment eligibility.

More than 10 years ago, the Corps rated the Tulsa-West Tulsa levees as "unacceptable" and "very high risk" of failure due to overtopping and inadequately controlled under-seepage and through seepage-making clear the need and urgency for modernization and upgrades. Without structural improvements, it is unclear how much longer the levee system will be able to provide critical protection to the Tulsa County community.

Flooding last May and June made it clear how important it is to update the Tulsa-West Tulsa Levee system. Flood waters along the Tulsa-West Tulsa Levees remained high for 11 days, putting incredible strain on the 70-year old levee system. During this time, the Oklahoma National Guard was deployed at key points along the entire system filling and placing sand bags to strengthen and fortify the levees. Any catastrophic failure would have resulted in the flooding of the homes and businesses of thousands of Oklahomans, the Sand Springs Petrochemical Complex (a Superfund site), and major industrial sites including refineries and utility sites—more than $2 billion in public and private infrastructure.

Finalizing the Chief's Report as soon as practical would ensure Congress can authorize the construction of the modernization of the Tulsa-West Tulsa Levee system this year. 

Key Background:

While recent flooding made need to modernize the Tulsa-West Tulsa Levee system even more important, Sen. Inhofe has been working for years on the process to get critical improvements:

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-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 to advance the modernization of the Tulsa-West Tulsa Levee system, 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 Levee system 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.

On Jun 27, 2019, Inhofe, Lankford and Hern wrote a letter to urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete feasibility study for the Tulsa-West Tulsa Levee system by the end of this year. The feasibility study is the next key step to modernizing the aging Tulsa levees. The members also request the immediate implementation of critical improvements following the conclusion of the study.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Tulsa-West Tulsa Levees Integrated Feasibly Study Report and Environmental Assessment was released on September 16, 2019, for a 33-day comment period. Inhofe praised the release of the study here.

On October 21, 2019, Inhofe submitted a comment to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the feasibility study for the Tulsa-West Tulsa Levee system.

On October 23, 2019, Inhofe questioned a federal panel of witnesses at an Environmental Public Works (EPW) hearing to receive testimony on Improving American Economic Competitiveness Through Water Resources Infrastructure, saying in part:

Inhofe: I think we can. Now, let me say something about General Semonite that most of you don’t know. This guy is a real tiger. When you’re talking about some of your employees, some of your staff, and what your expectations are, they should see you in action. We had a flood, we have a levee that’s called the “Tulsa-West Tulsa levee,” it was built back in the 40s, and we had a real big-time flood just last year. I mean it was devastating. I remember going up to the dams and seeing it come within two feet of my feet down there, and the levee was starting to break but it did hold up. Now this guy, General Semonite, I walked in and I saw him stacking sandbags on the levee, and I thought “this guy, literally has his finger in the dike on this thing.” So I just want to tell you what a great job you did there.

But, we also want to do something about that feasibility study and you’ve heard me talk about this for a long time. Originally, it was going to be three years, but it had been knocked down to two years. Now, my feeling is, I know that you probably are scheduled to leave around April. I would like to have a big celebration with you and sign that report prior to that time that you leave. Now the question I would have is, if the chief’s report was completed this year, you could include it in your budget for fiscal year 2021. That is correct isn’t it?

Semonite: It is Senator, and I owe all of you, I think right now on my list of Chief’s Reports, I’ve got about 25 more that I’m planning on signing before I leave and that’s one of them. So we’re pushing hard, I told my guys, “don’t give me 500 pages if 200 is good enough.”

Inhofe: Now, where does that rank with the other 24?

Semonite: They’re all very, very important sir.

On January 22, 2020, Inhofe questioned John Fleming, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development of the U.S. Department of Commerce, at an EPW hearing to receive testimony on the progress being made to update two key Pump Stations that are part of the Tulsa-West Tulsa Levee system.  

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