For the past 10 years, the Tulsa Regional Chamber’s annual OneVoice Agenda fly-in to Washington, D.C., has included lobbying on behalf of area river and flood control projects.
This year, Chamber President Mike Neal said Wednesday, his question to the Army Corps of Engineers was, “How can we assure that when we or our successors are here in 10 years we’re not still talking about the same projects?”
The issue, of course, is particularly relevant now because of the area’s flooding last week. For the same reason, Neal said, decision-makers in Washington seem more attentive than in the past.
“I think we clearly have their attention,” Neal said. “From the White House and the Senate and House delegation, it’s been made clear that the west Tulsa levee study needs to be done as soon as possible.”
The study is important because it must be completed before work on the 70-year-old levees can be authorized by Congress.
Oklahoma’s senators and representatives have advocated for improvements to the levee system for years, but the line is a long one. A 2018 Congressional Research Service report says the Corps of Engineers, with an annual budget of around $5 billion, has a $100 billion backlog of authorized projects.
Wednesday, the Chamber’s OneVoice entourage of more than 80 people representing 75 signatories to the agenda had a lengthy meeting with James Dalton, the Corps’ director of civil works. Neal said Dalton appeared well-versed on Tulsa-area projects and sympathetic to the business leaders’ complaints but also noted similar maintenance and construction needs throughout the country.
Neal said Dalton told the group “the local community has to continue to make (the situation) known. When the floodwaters subside and the rebuilding is over, we have to continue advocating.
“The Corps made it known that it can’t do this by itself. It can’t snap its fingers and do it.”
Neal was encouraged, though, by indications that the Corps is accelerating the levee study and a companion study on Keystone Dam so that their recommendations and the supporting data can inform an authorization bill expected in late 2020.
Neal said Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Tulsa County on Tuesday seems to have moved the levees up the bureaucratic list of priorities.
The flooding also altered the OneVoice fly-in plans. The timing of the trip is coincidental but perhaps fortuitous.
“That’s been on our list of priorities for years,” Neal said. “But because of what happened it’s been 85-90% of our lobbying efforts this year.
“There’s never anything good about a disaster,” Neal said. “Never. But if there is a silver lining, we’ve finally gained the attention of a presidential administration and these other federal agencies.”