Sen Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tucked an amendment into the $750 billion defense spending bill that would benefit fellow wealthy homeowners at Grand Lake in northeast Oklahoma by keeping lake levels high but is expected to worsen flooding in nearby Miami, Okla.
The amendment, which starts on page 1,183 of the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act, would limit the ability of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to say how high the lake should be. The Grand River Dam Authority, which has board members who also own lake houses, is licensed by the commission to operate the dam.
“He’s helping his buddies to make sure the lake is full during summer so those very big boats do well,” said Rebecca Jim of Local Environmental Action Demanded which put up a billboard in Miami criticizing Inhofe.
Grand Lake O' the Cherokees was created in 1940, when the federal government's New Deal-era Public Works Administration built the Pensacola Dam on the Grand River. The 66-mile-long lake is so beloved by the wealthy and powerful of Oklahoma that one of its subdivisions is called Governors Retreat. Inhofe, a climate-change denier and vocal anti-environmentalist with an estimated net worth is $4.5 million, built a vacation house at Grand Lake in 1962. Former Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and her husband bought a second home on Grand Lake in 2011. Dam authority board members Pete Churchwell, Jim Richie and Tom Kimball also have lake houses.
“For the better part of my career in the United States Senate I have been working to maintain higher lake levels on Grand,” Inhofe wrote the commission in 2016.
Law professor Richard Painter said the annual defense bill has been used before to try to get environmentally questionable projects through Congress. In 2018, the Senate defense bill included an amendment that would nullify lawsuits over a land exchange for PolyMet Mining Co. to build a copper-nickel mine in Minnesota. That provision was removed before the bill went to the president.
“That’s something that should not be dealt with in a defense appropriations bill,” said Painter, the former chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration.
The federal financial conflict of interest law exempts members of Congress, the president and the vice president. Miami officials learned about Inhofe’s amendment just before the July 4 holiday from the press.
“It’s just as unfair as it can be,” said Miami City Manager Dean Kruithof.
Since the early 1990s, Miami has flooded more than two dozen times, most recently in May. A 2015 study Miami paid for found that the dam worsened flooding.
“The economic and social fabric of the community is slowly being destroyed,” said Miami Mayor Rudy Schultz.
Natasha McKibben spent her oldest son’s eighth birthday packing up their house near Miami, shortly before it flooded in 2007, causing $30 million to $40 million in damage to Miami and the surrounding area. Some of her neighbors’ houses are still vacant.
“We had a FEMA trailer for probably two months before we could get back in the house,” McKibben said.
Miami officials had hoped to address flooding problems with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The license for the dam runs through March 2022. The dam authority now wants to extend the license until Dec. 31, 2026.