by Chris Casteel
Extreme rains across Oklahoma in the past year have underscored the value of small watershed dams and the urgency of maintaining them, according to people who have worked for decades to keep the dams functional.
In May alone, the dams, some of which date back 70 years, prevented $33 million in damages, said Larry Caldwell, an engineer who worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Oklahoma Conservation Commission.
The dams yield nearly $100 million a year in benefits, mostly from preventing property damage, Caldwell said.
“A lot of people don’t even realize these dams exist, let alone how they affect their lives,” he said.
Oklahoma has 1,207 of the dams, more than any other state, possibly because Oklahoma members of Congress in the 1940s and 1950s developed the program.
U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, whose father worked for a western Oklahoma conservation district, grew up with an appreciation for the dams and has been promoting their preservation since going to Congress in the mid-1990s.
Recent flooding “explains why for my entire career I have put so much energy in the upstream flood control dam program in this country,” Lucas said recently.