Conservation Programs Division
Oklahoma's Upstream Flood Control Program
Oklahoma leads the nation with 2,107 upstream flood control dams constructed under the USDA Watershed Program. Oklahoma’s conservation districts are primary watershed project sponsors. There are 129 watershed projects in 64 counties with dams in 121 watersheds in 61 counties providing $81 million in annual estimated benefits from reduced flood damages and other benefits.
The state has always been a leader in flood control beginning with the construction of the first upstream flood control dam in the nation in 1948, Cloud Creek Dam Number 1. The dam located near Cordell, Oklahoma, is in the Cloud Creek Watershed, a tributary to the Washita River and was built by local watershed project sponsors with assistance from the USDA Soil Conservation Service (now Natural Resources Conservation Service). The Flood Control Act of 1944 (Public Law 78-534) authorized funding and technical assistance from the USDA Soil Conservation Service. This law authorized pilot watershed projects in eleven watersheds in the nation, including the Washita River Watershed in Oklahoma.
Congress saw the success and benefits of these eleven watershed projects and in 1954 passed the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954 (Public Law 83-566) that expanded the program to other approved watersheds.
Oklahoma also completed the first watershed project in the nation, Sandstone Creek Watershed Project in Roger Mills County. Twenty-four dams were constructed in the watershed between 1950 and 1953. Oklahoma was also the first state to construct a multi-purpose dam, Wildhorse Creek Dam No. 22 in Stephens County in 1957.
Watershed Fact Sheets
We maintain an online repository of information about the Small Watershed Upstream Flood Control Program in Oklahoma and about selected sites across the state. Follow the links below for fact sheets on the following topics:
How the Program Works
The concept behind the upstream flood control program is to build small flood control dams on tributaries upstream from rivers or large streams. The series of dams in a watershed trap water during heavy rainstorms and slowly release it over a period of several days or weeks through a pipe in the dam preventing it from reaching the river all at one time, thus reducing flooding.
Conservation practices such as terraces, ponds, diversions, grass plantings, and grade stabilization structures are applied to the land in the watershed to prevent erosion, reduce sediment and to help extend the life of the dams.
Local watershed project sponsors request assistance with a feasibility study on a watershed project from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. If the project is determined feasible and project sponsors want to proceed with the project, NRCS provides assistance in developing a watershed plan. This plan may need Congressional approval before funds can be allocated to the project. Once the plan is approved and money is appropriated, construction is started on dams where local sponsors have obtained easements and rights-of-way. Congress allocates watershed funds to states on an annual basis. Watershed projects require a local unit of government as the primary project sponsor, which in Oklahoma are usually conservation districts. The project sponsor assumes operation and maintenance for the dams after they are constructed.
Many of the 2,107 dams were built in the 1960s and 70s, with over 100 dams constructed in some years.
Most of the dams are located on private lands and while the dams are constructed with federal funds, the lakes formed by the dams do not have to be opened to the public. Permission to enter private property to fish, etc. must be obtained from the landowner.
Benefits of the Watershed Program
The 2,107 upstream flood control dams constructed in the state have established a $2 billion infrastructure that provides multiple benefits to thousands of citizens. It is estimated that the dams and the established conservation practices in the watersheds provide approximately $81 million in benefits each year.
The lakes not only provide flood and erosion control, but they are sources of water for livestock and irrigation and they provide wildlife habitat and recreational areas. The dams provide flood protection to over two million acres of agricultural land in downstream flood plains.
Forty-two of the dams were constructed as multi-purpose structures that provide municipal and rural water supplies or recreation areas for local communities.
These 2,107 flood control dams:
- Protects 1,439 county and highway bridges.
- Provides flood prevention for 21,206 farms and ranches.
- Traps 9.4 million tons of sediment each year. Much of this sediment would end up in major streams or lakes, like Lake Texoma, if not trapped by the flood control dams.
- Has created or enhanced 45,326 acres of wetlands.
Flood Control Act of 1944, Public Law 78-534
The Washita River Watershed Flood Control Program was one of the original 11 projects authorized in the nation by Public Law 78-534 and since that time 1,107 of the 1,121 planned dams have been built in the sub-watersheds of the Washita River. Many of these dams have or will soon reach the end of their 50-year designed lifespan and have filled with sediment or need rehabilitating due to changes in hazard classification or dam safety rules. Some dams have already been rehabilitated to bring them up to current dam safety standards and extend their lifespan for another 100 years.
Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954, Public Law 83-566
Under the authority of PL 83-566 Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act local sponsors have requested assistance on over 100 watersheds. From these requests, work plans have been completed and approved for 69 watersheds. Nine hundred and eighty-seven dams have been completed and another 331 dams are awaiting construction. The number of dams constructed each year depends on local sponsors obtaining required easements and rights-of-way and on NRCS receiving watershed funds for construction and technical assistance.
Pilot and RC&D Watershed Projects
Six flood control dams in the state were constructed under a pilot flood prevention project (Double Creek Watershed in Washington County) and seven dams were built under the Resource Conservation and Development Program (RC&D). The six dams in the Double Creek Watershed were rehabilitated between 2004 and 2008 to bring them up to current dam safety standards and extend their lifespan for another 100 years.
High Hazard Dams
Of the 2,107 flood control dams in the state, 229 of them are classified as “high hazard” dams (as of September 1, 2008). A dam is classified high hazard when there would be possible loss of life from a dam failure.
Some dams were designed as high hazard dams when they were constructed due to homes, businesses or major highways located downstream in the breach area. But many of the high hazard dams were constructed as low hazard dams in rural areas to help control flooding on agricultural lands. Homes, businesses or highways have been constructed downstream in the breach area of some of these dams causing them to be reclassified from low hazard to high hazard. The NRCS continually reviews the status of dams to ensure the correct classification.
Operation and Maintenance
Operation and maintenance of the 2,107 small flood control dams is a major responsibility for many conservation districts. Some districts have over 100 dams in their district. Some of the common jobs districts perform are: making annual inspections; ensuring the dams and earthen spillways are protected with good vegetation and free of erosion; ensuring that the principal spillway inlet tower and pipe are kept free of debris and in good condition; maintaining fences around the dam, and ensuring that there are no obstructions in the earthen spillway like trees or man-made objects that disrupt the natural water flow.
The Oklahoma Conservation Commission (OCC) has several watershed technicians that provide assistance and equipment to districts to help with this responsibility. These technicians provide technical assistance to conservation districts and often assist districts with repairs to principal spillways and other components of dams. The OCC loans siphons, pumps, and other equipment to conservation districts and provides training to district employees on operation and maintenance.
The OCC also provides funds to districts for repairs to dams (subject to the availability of funds appropriated by the legislature). Requests for such funds is made to OCC using form OCC-8H.
The OCC works with conservation districts to develop a method of professional control of beavers where they are a problem. Beavers often burrow into the earthen dams and plug up the principal spillway of dams, which if not addressed could cause dam failure.
Project Sponsor Responsibilities
Watershed project sponsors (in most cases conservation districts) enter into an agreement with NRCS on a watershed project. This agreement spells out responsibilities of the project sponsor, such as those for operation and maintenance of the dams. This agreement requires the sponsors to carry out annual inspections, and operate and maintain the dams to ensure they remain safe and function as designed.
Although the dams are usually located on private land, conservation districts through an easement signed before construction of a dam, have the right to enter the property to inspect, maintain and repair or rehabilitate the dams.
Additional information on sponsor responsibilities is available on the National Watershed Coalition web site in the form of a question and answer fact sheet (pdf).
Living with Dams: Know Your Risks is a publication by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency