Sadly and understandably there is much talk about what has happened as a result of recent disasters in Oklahoma, such as flooding and tornadoes. Recovery efforts are underway in many areas.
However, stop and think about what could happen that poses a threat. That’s where the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program can possibly come into play.
The EWP allows the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to establish non-traditional partnerships with sponsors to address serious impacts resulting from natural disasters. The program requires NRCS to work quickly with local sponsors to protect public infrastructure and prevent environmental hazards. All projects must demonstrate that they reduce threats to life and property. Projects must be economically, environmentally, and socially sound, while meeting acceptable engineering standards.
Gary O’Neill, Oklahoma NRCS State Conservationist, said, “EWP is a USDA NRCS program that can help protect local infrastructure that has been damaged from a natural disaster. EWP can help Oklahoma rural communities get their feet back on the ground after a natural disaster such as flooding has had such a significant impact on residents.”
NRCS provides financial and technical assistance for the following activities under the EWP Program: Debris removal from stream channels, road culverts, and bridges; reshape and protect eroded streambanks that are threatening infrastructure; correct damages to drainage facilities; establish vegetative cover on critically eroding lands to protect infrastructure, and repair conservation practices, including flood-water retarding to protect infrastructure.
Public and private landowners can apply for assistance for the EWP Program but must have a sponsor. Those eligible sponsors include cities, counties, towns, conservation districts, flood and water control districts, or any federally recognized Native American tribe or tribal organization.
Benny Bowling, District 1 County Commissioner for Caddo County, said they used the EWP Program following floods in 2007. There is no hesitation in his response about how well the program works.
“It was a lifesaver for us,” Bowling said. “We had sites that we’d never be able to come in and riprap, and with EWP the biggest part of ours was all riprap jobs. It was a fantastic program for us. It saved some bridges and roads for us. That’s just telling it like it is.”
Sponsors are responsible for providing land rights for the repairs; securing the necessary permits; providing the sponsor funding for repairs, and completing the repairs using federal or local contracts.
Congress approves all Emergency Watershed Protection Program funding. NRCS can pay up to 75 percent of the cost of eligible emergency projects. Local sponsors must acquire the remaining 25 percent in cash or in-kind services.
The program allows communities to address serious and long-lasting damage to infrastructure and land following a natural disaster, also known as an event.
Once a natural disaster has occurred the local sponsor must determine if they have any damages from the natural disaster that may be eligible for EWP Program assistance. Then they must contact the local NRCS field office to schedule site visits as soon as possible. There must be either a Presidential Declaration, where the President declares an area a “major disaster area” or a State or Locally Declared disaster in which the NRCS State Conservationist determines that a watershed impairment exists.
In this case, on June 6, 2019, O’Neill, as the Oklahoma NRCS State Conservationist, declared all 77 counties in Oklahoma eligible for the Emergency Watershed Protection program due to the May 2019 flood and tornado event. So far for the May 2019 flooding, NRCS field offices and engineers have reviewed or are in the process of reviewing around 30 sites for program eligibility.
One question often asked is what agency or program is the best contact for individuals who are facing challenges with stream erosion. Greg Kloxin is the assistant director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission’s (OCC) Water Quality Division. He said, “Unfortunately, there’s not a one-stop-shop agency or program to address streambank problems. OCC has worked in very specific situations to restore small sections of streams, but with limited long-term success. The problem is usually systemic and repairs to one small section can quickly become overwhelmed by hydraulic forces from the rest of the system. Funding system-wide projects are cost prohibitive. The best defense against erosion and its impacts on infrastructure is to restore and maintain adequate area of deep rooted, perennial vegetation along steam corridors and, where at all possible, avoid flood plains and river bends as sites for dwellings and infrastructure.”
For more information about the EWP program and other NRCS programs please contact your local NRCS office for assistance. Offices and staff are located in every county in Oklahoma.