A feasibility study for upgrades to Tulsa’s aged Arkansas River levee system is already on an expedited schedule, but members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation wrote a letter this week urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move even faster.

Upgrades to the 75-year-old levee system have been discussed for years but only began in earnest with a feasibility study about nine months ago.

The studies, which usually include reviews of several alternative plans and public comment periods, typically take three years to complete and are then followed by two years of engineering and design before the first shovel is turned.

But U.S. Sens. James Lankford and Jim Inhofe and U.S. Rep. Kevin Hern sent a letter to the Corps this week asking that the feasibility study be completed by year’s end so the needed upgrades can be included in the president’s fiscal year 2021 budget request to Congress early next year.

The letter added a “nudge,” as Lankford put it, urging “immediate implementation of the critical improvements to the levee system upon the conclusion of the study.”

“I don’t want them to finish the study and then put it on a list of things to get done,” he said. “It’s been a high-risk project they’ve known is coming, and we want to see it keep moving forward.”

The letter was addressed to R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, and to Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, chief of engineers and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Semonite visited Tulsa to work on the levee issues with local officials during and after the recent flood.

Completing the study by the end of December would mean cutting what is normally at least a 36-month process down to about 16 months, but Lankford said he thinks that should be possible.

“Completely,” he said. “If not, they should tell me why.”

Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith said the officials’ pace of planning for the levees and support has been welcome.

“They were all here and walked the levees with me during the (flood) event,” she said. “We’re very grateful that the delegation is so fully engaged on this issue.”

The next milestone for the feasibility study will come with a tentative selected plan in August, according to Bryan Taylor, civil works branch project manager for the Corps’ Tulsa District.

A risk assessment completed in 2016 that worked into the feasibility study and work from Oklahoma’s congressional delegation that made the project 100% federally funded, rather than a shared expense with the community, helped expedite the process from three years to two, Taylor said.

He could not say if completing the plan by year’s end was possible, but he said the Corps is working with community officials and pursuing the plan aggressively.

“We have laid some pretty good new groundwork in strategic thinking and innovative strategies. We’re on a path of something that’s never been done with a feasibility study. We’re breaking new ground,” he said.

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Kelly Bostian



Twitter: @KellyBostian

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