Ebb and Flow of River Development

The dream for development along the 42-mile corridor that the Arkansas River runs through Tulsa County continues to flourish.
A major momentum push occurred when the Legislature recently approved a bill to sell bonds to finance low-water dams along the Arkansas River in the Tulsa metro area.
Sand Springs and Jenks will get new dams, and there is money in the legislation to retrofit Tulsa’s low-water dam at Zink Lake, bringing the sight of year-round bank-to-bank water in the Arkansas River closer.
But the reality is Sand Springs and Jenks will not see those dams until 2013 at the earliest, 2015 at the latest.
Permitting should be done in two to three years. Another two to three years for design and construction. Total cost will run close to $100 million.
Money Money Money
The legislation, Senate Bill 239 and a companion measure, Senate Bill 238, calls for the sale of $25 million in bonds for statewide conservation projects.
The state Supreme Court struck down the issues when they were packaged as a single piece of legislation, declaring it unconstitutional because it contained more than one subject.
SB 239 enables the state to secure another $50 million in federal funds for the project.
Yet, the projects need another $50 million to keep moving.
“Our main concern is getting that first appropriation,” said Gaylen Pinc, environmental program manager with Program Management Group, 600 S. Boulder Ave., Suite 1200.
Over the next seven years the projects are expected to create a $2.8 billion economic impact and create about 9,450 jobs, said supporters.
Improving Tulsa’s river corridor is an attractive idea. Riverparks in Tulsa and RiverWalk Crossing in Jenks are proof people enjoy eating, shopping and spending money in shops that front the river.
Construction of the billion-dollar River District Development Group is also proof that river development is welcome and a good investment for Jenks. Downstream, Tim Remy’s $50 million development in Bixby is another example of retail and entertainment business meeting the demand for river attractions.
Once built, it’s expected the low water dams will spur even more development.
Sen. James Inhofe and First District Congressman John Sullivan are working to get the additional funds in the 2010 federal budget, but it could be a struggle to bring the money home because the project would be considered an earmark.
An earmark gets a bad rap, Pinc said.
“But, essentially, for projects like this, they must be pushed by the congressional delegation or they (projects) do not ordinarily get funded,” he said.
And, in the highly partisan climate in the House of U.S. Representatives, Oklahoma might be at a disadvantage because it is considered a “red’ state. Nearly two-thirds of Oklahomans voted against Barack Obama in the November general election.
“That does not get us any brownie points,SDRq Pinc said.
Down by the River
Tulsa County officials have not been idle; but have moved forward with environmental studies. Started five years ago, the latest phase has been ongoing since 2007, said Pinc.
“We have collected year-long data of seasonal environmental information about fish species, flora, bank plants, investigating the fish in the channel, the fish that live in the rocks,” Pinc said. “We’ve looked at all parts of the food chain — vegetation, snails, crawfish — we look at all the data.”
Environmental engineers and scientists have also examined historical and archeological data up and down the corridor in order to mitigate any damage that might be caused by the additional 10 feet of water on the banks.
“We look at existing conditions and look for any data gaps,” he said.
PMG works with worldwide engineering, construction and operations company CH2M HILL on the project, under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees Keystone Lake, dam and the Arkansas River corridor. The Corps of Engineers designs the data collection, Pinc said.
“The only things we cannot control are the conditions,” he said. The data collection ended early this year. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be the regulatory agency.
“CH2M Hill will decide if the data is complete,” Pinc said. “It is a fluid process. They will be able tell us whether there are gaps in the data or make the decision to go forward.”
For the Birds
Arkansas River development across Tulsa County is tricky because it crosses many jurisdictions and sensitive environmental issues including wildlife habitat and storm water challenges. There are nearly miles of levees to maintain, there is the protection by the Keystone Dam and hydro power it creates. There are endangered species of birds and bugs to protect. Building the dams and raising water levels means any damage to river bank and species like the Least Tern, which is endangered, and the American Bald Eagle, which is not endangered, have to be mitigated. The American burying beetle, another threatened specie, is a bug that needs protection.
Stabilizing the river banks is important when you raise the water level five to six feet, Pinc said. Water flow fluctuation occurs daily, “We have to try and improve these habitats,” he said.
Least Tern nesting islands will likely be built around 71st Street as everything from 106th Street to 81st Street would be inundated.
“There is a balancing act as the islands have to be man made, sustain least terns but cannot have any land bridge for people or predators to reach the islands. We have to release large amounts of water to keep predators from walking to islands this time of year.”
Work has to be done to maintain eagle habitats by planting native trees like cottonwood and sycamore.
Master Plans
With the master plan, Tulsa County front-ended the cost of design, Pinc said. The first phases of the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan were developed with extensive citizen and stakeholder input. The plan is now part of federal guidelines.
The vision of the plan captures the public’s desire for water in the river through additional low water dams, preservation of the corridor with the addition of trails, parks and open space.
Now Congress has to appropriate money.
“To get our project out of the ‘new start-up’ category we have to have the funding,” Pinc said. “First funding is critical ?≠?≠— otherwise we are like a horse sitting in the chute.”



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