The Grand River Dam Authority’s involvement in a program to help improve water quality in the Illinois River Basin, saw large gains in 2020, continuing a boost which began when the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission (OSRC) merged with GRDA in 2016.
Prior to the merger, OSRC was partnering with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission (OCC) in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), to establish riparian easements on property adjacent to the river. The CREP program ended new enrollments in 2015 without reaching many of its goals. However, the program helped partners develop the foundation for long-term riparian protection in the area. Most importantly, the additional resources GRDA was able to provide in its similar, stand-alone program continues to move the watershed much closer to its riparian easement goals.
CREP or similar programs use a combination of federal and non-federal funds to secure and designate lands as riparian areas. In the Illinois River watershed, landowners voluntarily participate by leasing lands to conservation programs for approximately $75 per acre, per year. The property is then designated as a protected riparian area. The landowner then works with program resources to implement agricultural conservation practices, stabilize streambanks, and manage the property in ways that benefit water quality in the river. Program partners must review the easements on a routine basis to ensure compliance and address challenges.
“These riparian areas harness and dissipate water energy during floods,” said GRDA Vice President of River Operations & Water Quality Ed Fite. “They also help to stop streambank erosion and serve as the lifebelt for the aquatic and terrestrial communities in the watershed.” Naturalized riparian areas can filter as much as 80 percent of pollutants before they enter streams and are an essential tool to protect water resources in these important watersheds.
When CREP program enrollments ended, GRDA and the OCC worked together to find new funding and continue their collaboration towards an eventual goal of 9,000 acres of protected riparian areas. Since 2016, 1,480 acres have been added to the inventory, including 800 acres in 2020. These expansions have been supported with funding from the EPA Clean Water, state conservation funds, and other sources. While the majority of those easements are in the Illinois River Watershed, GRDA also leased 237 acres along Grand Lake’s Horse Creek in September.
While GRDA supports the program with legal and administrative costs, easement funding does not come from GRDA ratepayers. Together, GRDA and OCC have invested $3.2 million to conserve riparian acreage. And those funds have been used efficiently. Currently, the partnership has enrolled roughly 41 percent of its land goals, while only expending a total of 29 percent of the funds estimated to reach that goal.
“Good stewardship of the natural resources under our control have always been at the core of the GRDA mission,” said GRDA President/CEO Dan Sullivan. “These waters are important not just for us today, but for generations to come, so we are committed to continuing our support for the programs that protect these resources.”
“Natural resource conservation and water quality protection require a long-term approach. Successes often result from conservation implemented over many years, perhaps even that builds from one generation to the next. The OCC and its partners are proud to show that solutions are possible through voluntary partnerships with private landowners. We are proud to partner with GRDA, conservation districts, and landowners to protect these important resources for future generations,” said Trey Lam, OCC Executive Director.
GRDA is Oklahoma’s largest public power electric utility; fully funded by revenues from electric and water sales instead of taxes. Each day, GRDA strives to be an “Oklahoma agency of excellence” by focusing on the 5 E’s: electricity, economic development, environmental stewardship, employees, and efficiency.