U.S. Bureau of Reclamation says no to Lake Thunderbird-area turnpike

Jan. 24—The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has denied the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority's request to build a toll road through the Lake Thunderbird Watershed, a report revealed.

OTA announced in February it would build a turnpike along Indian Hills Road and another in the lake watershed as part of the agency's ACCESS plan, a 15-year expansion of the state's toll road system projected to cost $5 billion.

In a letter to OTA obtained by The Transcript, the bureau stated the authority's request was "not compatible with the Congressionally authorized purposes for which the land was acquired and is still needed."

Congress authorized the Norman Project, later known as Lake Thunderbird, in 1960 as a reservoir and recreation area. The bureau's report, also obtained by The Transcript, listed environmental, wildlife, public interest and other concerns as reasons for denying OTA's application.

Because the lake is owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the turnpike authority had to submit a compatibility application to the department in order to build the toll road.

The bureau denied the request on Jan. 18, OTA officials announced Friday. The agency can reapply, a department official told The Transcript on Monday.

OTA could request access across pipelines and flowage easements if it did not "interfere with Reclamation's easement interests or impact operation, maintenance, and replacement of Norman Project infrastructure," Renee Babiracki, administrator for Oklahoma-Texas Bureau of Reclamation, said in an email.

"Such easement crossings would require close coordination with Reclamation throughout the turnpike planning, design, and construction process."

Babiracki added that its denial in no way "indicates support for, or opposition of" the turnpike or the ACCESS plan.

A recently issued statement from OTA did not indicate it would resubmit its application or explore the turnpike in the watershed.

"OTA is assessing the situation now," spokeswoman Brenda Perry Clark said Monday in an email to The Transcript.

In a separate statement, OTA Deputy Director Joe Echelle said he appreciated the bureau's feedback and that it was time to go back to the drawing board.

"This is the planning process working as it should," he said. "New alignments often get changed early on.

"Now we'll start gathering information to make adjustments. We've got time since the South Extension is in the final phase of the 15-year, long-range plan."

The bureau's decision "will require OTA modify the direction of the proposed alignment of the South Extension turnpike to avoid USBR fee title land," Echelle's statement read.

He added the bureau was willing to "work with OTA" on "an alignment across pipeline and flowage easements," and that OTA would ensure that would not disrupt the lake's infrastructure and operations.

Generally, easements are privately owned, but with the caveat that changes cannot occur to the land that would aggravate flooding, according to Kyle Arthur. Arthur manages the Central Oklahoma Master Conservancy District, which oversees the lake in contract with the bureau.

The turnpike would cross one or more pipelines, which could include those that feed water to Norman, Midwest City or Del City, Arthur said.

Feds cite application failures regarding environment

Early in the report, the bureau concluded that OTA's plans would cast a longer shadow over the lake than the 140 acres of easements and 60 acres of the bureau's "fee title lands." The "impacts would extend beyond the footprint of the turnpikes," the report indicated.

According to the report, OTA made several promises to ensure pollution and habitat loss to wildlife would be solved through wetlands to filter water runoff and sound barriers.

The bureau disagreed.

OTA's plans would "disrupt wildlife and trigger avoidance responses," the report read. "The proposed project would introduce unavoidable and perpetual light and sound pollution to relatively isolated areas that provide habitat for fish and wildlife."

The bureau's report stated OTA's proposal to install sound barrier "screen walls" to reduce light and sound "would fragment the habitat and act as a barrier to wildlife populations that depend on Norman Project lands."

That finding is consistent with a local wildlife rehabilitation center, WildCare Foundation. Its director, Inger Guiffrida, has said the turnpike would close off an open corridor for wildlife migration and habitat for federally protected wildlife.

While the bureau concluded a wetland could compensate for lost or impacted wildlife habitat, OTA's measures would have to be "carefully reviewed" to assess the benefit and whether the loss would forever diminish the "fish and wildlife benefits."

The report cited a risk to public health when it noted the lake's function is already overburdened "even without the presence of new access points the proposed project would provide."

The document also concluded the toll road "could be designed such that it does not interfere" with the area's flowage and easements, but any such plan required "further evaluation."

OTA failed to prove that its route through the lake and watershed was the best one, according to the report.

While OTA did mention alternative routes in its application, the bureau said missing information on the routes was not convincing.

Its application "does not contain sufficient evidence documenting the level of analysis used by OTA to identify and evaluate the range of alternatives, including the assumptions, methods and criteria to ultimately select the alignment ... over other alignment alternatives," the report stated. "Without that "evidence," it also concluded that "the methods and rationale used by OTA to select the preferred alignment may not be justified."

The bureau stated the lake is one of the most frequented recreation centers in the state, likely because 1.5% of Oklahoma land is owned by the federal government.

"Furthermore, recreational demands at Lake Thunderbird are already very high, which is a testament to the value the public places on the recreational benefits provide by the Norman Project," the report stated.

Additional land uses would be subject to approval by the Secretary of the Interior and would require fair market value if approved.