An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, the adage says, and it applies perfectly to a government program begun in the 1940s that continues to pay dividends in Oklahoma.
We're talking about watershed dams, which The Oklahoman's Chris Casteel wrote about recently. These dams are mostly out of sight but shouldn't be out of mind to state and federal policymakers who are charged with maintaining them.
Developed by Oklahoma members of Congress, the program resulted in about 12,000 watershed dams being built in 47 states. Oklahoma has 2,107. They are maintained by the Oklahoma Conservation Commission.
Larry Caldwell, an engineer who worked for the commission and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, explained the theory behind the dams. The basic idea was "to keep the raindrop as close to where it falls as possible."
"So instead of having large dams downstream, there will be several small dams in tributaries within the watershed area," Caldwell said. "And each of those dams will collect the runoff from their drainage areas and slowly release it through a pipe. . It will control and greatly reduce the depth of flooding downstream."
The dams benefit the state to the tune of nearly $100 million per year, mostly by preventing property damage, Caldwell says. The structures prevented $33 million in damages in May alone.
They have proven especially handy during the past year, when rainfall statewide has been far above normal. However, Caldwell noted that when times are dry they're also important in helping to ensure a reliable water supply.
Originally intended to protect crops and farmland and help with irrigation, the dams also protect roads, bridges and residences — and lives — at risk due to urban sprawl. Without the dams, many of these structures "would flood on a fairly regular basis," said Trey Lam, head of the conservation commission.
Preservation of flood-control dams has been a priority for U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, since he got to Washington 25 years ago. He sponsored a bill creating a rehabilitation program — the dams were built to last 50 years — paid for with federal money (65 and states or local governments (35 percent). In 2014, he helped write a farm bill that included $250 million for dam rehabilitation.
The rehab program had funded 294 dams in 31 states as of the beginning of this year, 53 of them in Oklahoma. The list of dams needing work far exceeds the amount of money available, so officials focus on the structures that save lives.
Caldwell makes a good point in saying these dams will become more important in the years to come. "I think the challenge now is for today's generation to ensure they're maintained in safe condition," he said. Policymakers would do well to take note by keeping this program going strong.