Aerial Flooding

People stand near the edge of floodwaters from the Arkansas River that encroached on levees near Sand Springs on May 30. TOM GILBERT/Tulsa World file

Thousands of Tulsans should thank Sen. Jim Inhofe for his persistence in pursuing U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funding to replace the area’s aging levees.

Flooding last spring pushed the 70-year-old levees to their limit. Some 20,000 people and more than $2 billion in private and public infrastructure rely on the levees’ protection.

For years, local and federal officials have been working on a levee rebuild plan. More than a decade ago, the corps described the Tulsa levees as “unacceptable” and at “very high risk” of failure.

But the floods of 2019 emphasized the urgency of the situation. Under pressure from Inhofe and Sen. James Lankford, the corps has compressed processes so that Congress could consider funding the project this year.

Last week, Inhofe continued the pressure, urging a timely completion of a summary of the corps’ findings and recommendations that must be signed by Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the corps’ chief engineer, before the process can move forward. Once the report is signed, notification letters can be sent to members of congressional oversight committees, which could tee up the Tulsa project for funding this year.

Even with timely congressional action, it will be years before the levees are replaced and Tulsa can breathe easily. But unless Congress is able to act on the issue this year, another 12 months will be lost.

Inhofe, a senior member and former chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has consistently pushed the corps bureaucracy to move forward with the Tulsa project, and his efforts are showing results.

Replacing the levees’ World War II-era technology will be expensive. Current estimates are that the project will cost $150 million to $250 million with local sources responsible for 35%. But the cost of doing nothing — the cost of gambling on a catastrophic levee collapse that will endanger lives and property — is unacceptable.

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