June 29, 2008

Rains Drown Profits

By D.E. Smoot, Muskogee Phoenix, Okla.

Jun. 29--Fourth of July business is slowly looking better for business owners who set up shop along the shores at Fort Gibson Lake.

Summer 2007 was a wash for many merchants who rely on summer tourism dollars to make ends meet at year's end. With the water level at Fort Gibson Lake cresting more than 23 feet above normal, this year was not looking much better until this weekend.

"We were really looking forward to the Fourth of July this year," said Jody Proctor, whose store is located just outside the locked gates at Rocky Point, a recreational area and campground operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers north of Wagoner.

Saturday, she was celebrating the news that the area would be opened by Tuesday or Wednesday, with limited camping sites open for the weekend.

Even without as many campers as usual, just having the area open will help, Proctor said. The day-use people also bring a lot of business to her store.

Ed Engelke, a Corps of Engineers spokesman headquartered in Tulsa, said handling the influx of water from near-record or record-setting rainfall this year is a juggling act. That's why lake levels will vary -- while most eastern Oklahoma lakes are above normal, some are higher than others and the impact is greater.

"Generally the goal is to operate each lake within the 33-lake district as one system," Engelke said, noting the Corps' overarching mission to prevent downstream flooding. "The local perception can be that Fort Gibson (or other lakes) is being held higher than other lakes ... but generally, we like to find an equilibrium."

Data provided at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Web site that tracks lake levels and discharge rates at area dams show the elevations of most eastern Oklahoma reservoirs are above normal. While the number of feet above normal varies widely among those reservoirs, the percentage of the flood pools occupied by the runoff of recent rainfall vary by only single digits.

Hudson Lake, for example, was only about 12.5 feet above normal, but its flood control storage pool was 68 percent full. When Fort Gibson Lake was about 23 feet above normal elevation, its flood control pool was 73 percent full.

Eufaula and Tenkiller lake levels ranged from four to five feet respectively, or 35 percent and 12 percent of those lakes' flood-control capacity. Water impounded in those reservoirs -- and 29 others throughout Oklahoma and Kansas -- eventually empty into the Arkansas River, which feeds the Mississippi River.

The Corps, Engelke said, manages all of those lakes with an eye toward promoting a number of project purposes. Those defined purposes include flood control, recreation, hydro-electric generation, municipal water supplies and others.

"We try not to impact any project purpose at the detriment of another," Engelke said of the Corps' efforts to maintain lake levels that suit a variety of interests. "But flooding can cause a loss of life and property, so logic says preventing downstream flooding would be a primary purpose that has to be addressed above the others."

Providing downstream flood protection can be costly, according to a recent Corps of Engineers' publication highlighting Tulsa District projects. The February update shows that Tulsa District projects prevented an estimated $681 million in damage due to flooding that occurred in June and July 2007.

According to the Tulsa headquarters, preventing 16,000 downstream structures from flooding caused an estimated $34.5 million worth of damage to Corps projects within the district.

High priority items the Corps planned to address this year included repairs to embankments and outlet works. Other issues the Corps planned to address this year included recreational facilities, which are inundated again this summer.

"Most of the district's parks were submerged in water for weeks," the February 2008 report states, noting the destruction of roads, utilities, toilets and shower facilities. "The recreation area damages will be the most visible to the public because many parks will be partially closed or operated with reduced services."

Engelke said no new information has been released regarding the extent of damage to Corps projects as a result of this year's excessive rainfall. Lake levels will have to recede before a full assessment can begin.

Matt Taylor, who bought and began operating Whitehorn Cove Marina north of Wagoner in May 2007, said he is hopeful summer weather patterns will kick in and lake levels will return to levels that will accommodate the lake's recreational purpose.

"This is not just hurting us," said Taylor, who attended a Fort Gibson Lake Association meeting this past week. "The whole town is taking a hit. This whole area depends on tourism for its economic survival."

Taylor said he took a $300,000 hit in 2007 due to lost business and structural damage caused by lake levels that rose about 29 feet above normal that summer. This year, Taylor said, is not much better.

Workers with Lake Region Electric turned off power to the restaurant at Whitehorn Cove Marina because utility lines were submerged in water. And boat docks that haven't been dislodged from moorings are inaccessible from land.

"We're providing shuttle service to our customers who keep their boats out here," Taylor said. "That's getting expensive with gasoline at more than $4 a gallon, but we have to keep our regular customers happy -- we can't attract new ones because we can't even sell gasoline without electricity."

Even with most of the Corps campgrounds closed and boat ramps submerged, Taylor said he is hopeful lake levels will quickly recede and tourists will return to the lake when they do.

"We've got a lot of water to the south of us and a lot of water to the north," Taylor said of the streams, rivers and lakes that empty into the Arkansas River and eventually end up in the rain-swollen Mississippi River. "The water is moving out pretty fast now, but I don't know if it will be gone by the Fourth (of July)."

According to Corps data, about 55,000 cubic feet of water is being discharged from the Fort Gibson dam every second. The lake level was dropping about three-quarters of a foot daily.

Assistant City Editor Liz McMahan contributed to this report.

Lake level

Current lake level data can be found at:


Click on Daily Report on Reservoir Conditions

Summer 2007 flood impact

--Eighteen to 45 inches of rain fell across the Tulsa District during June and July.

--Forty of 50 Tulsa district-managed flood pools operated in flood mode.

--Seven district lake pool levels reached into the surcharge pool area.

--Seven additional projects were less than a foot from the top of the respective flood pools.

--Recreational facilities sustained an estimated $34.5 million in damage due to high water.

--160 public use areas at 25 Corps projects within the Tulsa district sustained damage that threatens partial closure or reduced services in order to protect public safety.

Source: U.S. Army Corps

of Engineers

Reach D.E. Smoot at 918-684-2903 or Click Here to Send Email


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