Amy Lester, Oklahoma Impact Team
HARDESTY, Oklahoma -- After spending $46 million to build a lake that never filled up with water, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is dishing out more tax payer dollars at Optima Lake.
"Money is wasted at an enormous level," said State Representative Gus Blackwell. "They are as they have been, using money foolishly."
Optima Lake is in Blackwell's district in the panhandle. He said he's frustrated since the Corps just used $207,000 federal stimulus dollars to tear down bathrooms, utility polls, shelters, picnic benches and close a road that runs over the dam. Blackwell said the structures were not all posing a safety hazard.
"It is a huge waste of money, a huge waste of time, when if they would've just left it the way it was, everything would've continued without any problem," Blackwell said.
Some people who live there or spend time in the area hunting or relaxing agreed with Blackwell.
"To come out and destroy public property that didn't need destroyed was absolutely a crime," said Bryon Test, lifelong resident of Texas County.
The Corps said they tore down structures that were dilapidated and hazardous, but Test said that's not true. He took pictures of several structures in the area that he said were in good condition before they were demolished.
|Before and After Demolition of Structures at Optima Lake|
To destroy public property that was in good condition makes me angry, makes me really angry that people in the government aren't any better stewards of our money than that," Test said.
Test said he is also angry that the Corps shut down the road that runs across the top of the dam. The Corps originally wanted to spend $1.2 million to build a new guardrail along the road. Then while facing political pressure, they pulled the plug on that project. They decided to put in gates to close the road, instead. The Corps insisted the road and structures out there posed a safety hazard.
"If someone got hurt, real serious, there could be huge lawsuits quite frankly and that's going to cost a whole lot more, so we're trying to prevent anybody from getting hurt to begin with," said Ross Adkins, spokesperson for the Corps, Tulsa District.
Adkins said he does not know of any serious injuries ever occurring at Optima Lake.
The Corps admitted that Optima Lake and the dam are not fulfilling the original purpose. They are not providing a water supply, preventing floods or giving the community a full lake for recreation. The Corps spends roughly $200,000 a year maintaining the project.
"So little water that you can almost walk across, so no, it is not performing as it was originally designed," Adkins said.
The Corps decided to study the project so it can determine what to do about it. The Corps' studies follow three phases. The first initial assessment will look at whether the project is doing what it's designed to do. The price tag will be $45,000. The second study is called the reconnaissance study. It will come up with options and recommendations. The cost will be $100,000. The third study is the feasibility phase, which will determine the best option and try to execute that option. The price tag is up to $1 million. The city, county or state will pay for half of that study. If the Corps cannot find anyone to pick up half the tab, the studies stop and no changes to the project will occur.
"Frankly, I don't think it will go any further. I don't think there is any dollars out there especially in this time of economics," Adkins said.
So why even start a process they can't finish? Why not just decide internally what to do and take action?
"Unfortunately, we don't have much choice. We're required to do the steps. We're not the makers of the policy. We're just the executers, or the ones who carry out the policy," Adkins said.
The whole situation has frustrated U.S. Senator Tom Coburn.
"It just shows you how disconnected the bureaucracies are from common sense," Coburn said. "They have to have money allocated so they can keep bureaucrats busy doing a study that otherwise is common sense."
Coburn said he plans to write a bill next session. He hopes to halt the studies and tell the Corps what to do. He said he'll likely push to allow the original landowners to buy their land back since they lost it through eminent domain. Anything left over, the state could use for a nature preserve and hunting.
"There are some people out there that don't want any of the land to go back to the original landowners, that's a non-starter because that violates the U.S. constitution," Coburn said.
State Rep. Blackwell and resident Test both said they want the 13,000 acres of land to go to the state, not the original landowners. At least one landowner said his family should have first right of refusal to purchase it before it goes to the state.
Blackwell said he is trying get additional information about how the Corps spends money at Optima Lake. The Corps said it wants to charge him $1,000 just to start his Freedom of Information Act request. Blackwell said he will keep fighting for those facts and figures.