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Army Corps Signs Off on Tulsa Levee Project

Friday, May 8, 2020

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Announced at the end of last month, Army Corps of Engineers Lt. General Todd Semonite signed his “Chiefs Report,” giving the go-ahead to the Corps to begin working on the preconstruction engineering and design phase for a levee system in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“The Tulsa levees have been rated unacceptable and high risk for far too long, and today we finally have the necessary approval to begin modernizing and upgrading the levees,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma.

About the Levees

According to Tulsa World, the levees were labeled to be in “unacceptable” condition back in 2008 by the Corps during an inspection. The entire system is made up of seven pump stations, 1,800 relief wells, 20 miles of levees and miles of drainage pipes.

Construction on the infrastructure was completed in 1945 and runs on what Levee District 12 Commissioner Todd Kilpatrick describes as a “mercury switch and whiskey bottle float.” Because of its age, the flat system is designed to use ceramic jugs so that when they rise with the water in the lower portion of the pump station, they push a cable that tips a mercury glass, completing an electrical circuit that starts the pumps.

Since its original construction, Kilpatrick adds that repairs have had to be machined, as mercury switches can no longer be found.

Last year, from May 10 to June 1, the area experienced an historic 22-day-long flood. Should the levees have given way during the extreme weather, roughly 20,000 people who live and work in the area would have experienced catastrophic damages.

Thankfully, Kilpatrick and Corps Tulsa District Chief of Emergency Management William Smiley had developed an emergency action plan years prior to the 2019 flood, requiring local and federal agencies to work around-the-clock work to keep the levees together. According to reports, during the fight, about a hundred National Guard soldiers and County Levee District and Corps personnel worked 12-hour shifts to monitor the levees.

At its peak, the levee released approximately 277,000 cubic feet of water per second from Keystone Lake during the historic flood.

In June, Senator Inhofe and Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, inked a letter to the Corps, requesting that a feasibility study on the levee system be expedited. (The study for a long-term solution for the system had started just ten months prior to the flood.)

The following month, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, along with Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, Bixby Mayor Brian Guthrie and Jenks Mayor Robert Lee also inked a letter to the Corps, requesting that the feasibility study be completed by December 2019, instead of its original September 2020 deadline.

“This will allow for much needed upgrades to be addressed before the close of the 116th Congress,” read the letter. “Any deadline past December runs the risk of delaying the rebuilding and recovery process several years for this vital infrastructure.”

Prior to the Chief’s Report signing, Tulsa County was awarded a $3 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration to modernize two existing pump stations in the 70-year-old Tulsa-West Tulsa levee system.

What’s Happening Now

According to a press release from Tulsa County, the signing of the Chief’s Report is a formal recommendation from the Corps to make necessary improvements on the Tulsa levees so that potential flood risks to neighboring communities can be minimalized.

Additionally, because the feasibility study commenced ahead of schedule, the Corps has the flexibility to use unspent funds for the study on preconstruction engineering and design phases.

“These levees are a safety net for all the families living along the river on Tulsa’s west side,” said Karen Keith, Tulsa County Commissioner, District 2, said. “A dense industry corridor, including refineries vital to the economy of Tulsa and Oklahoma, rely on these levees to keep their doors open.”

Specific improvements and construction for the project include:

  • 13 miles of a filtered berm with toe drain;
  • A filtered floodway structure;
  • Two detention ponds;
  • Reconstruction of 5 pump stations; and
  • Environmental mitigation.

The project is slated to cost between $150 million and $200 million.

From this point, plans will be submitted to Congress for authorization and appropriation. To ensure the Corps prioritizes funding for the construction, Sen. Inhofe is working to include authorization for the project in the nation’s Water Resources Development Act 2020 bill.

“We’re now ready to move to the preconstruction engineering and design phase, bringing us a critical step closer to protecting the lives of the people and the hundreds of homes and businesses that rely on the levees. I appreciate the tireless work of Lt. General Semonite and the Tulsa District Office staff, and appreciate all they did to make this project a priority,” Sen. Inhofe concluded.


Tagged categories: Construction; Design build; Engineers; Flood Barrier; Locks and dams; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Project Management; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Upcoming projects

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