Editor's note: this article has been updated to quote Amy Cerato's letter directly. Previously quotes were based on the letter read during the meeting.
A board that oversees Lake Thunderbird on behalf of the federal government made it clear who controls the lake in a letter it will send to the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.
The OTA announced in February plans to build a toll road in east Norman, west of the lake where it will cross over into U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Reclamation jurisdiction.
The bureau contracts with the Central Oklahoma Master Conservancy District, which oversees programs at the lake and the distribution of water to: Norman, Midwest City and Del City.
The letter requests OTA cooperate as it moves forward with plans to build the toll road, one of several statewide projects in a 15-year period.
Residents packed the small room and overflowed into the hallway as they listened to the Conservancy District board discuss the letter.
“As currently proposed, the turnpike does cross easements and/or real property of the Bureau of Reclamation,” Conservancy Board President Amanda Nairn told fellow board members during a Thursday meeting. “I agree that we have some jurisdiction here. I think it’s important that we keep those lines of discussion and make that clear.”
Del City’s board representative Michael Dean asked that the letter be written to more clearly state the entity that controls the lake.
“I had requested that we revise the letter to further explain that the property at Lake Thunderbird is governed by the Bureau of Reclamation, who therefore complies with all of the environmental laws of the United States,” Dean said. “I thought it was important to note in the second paragraph that it’s an owned water resource project that is administered by the Bureau.”
Dean’s motion to amend the letter passed unanimously and the board immediately voted to submit the letter to the OTA.
“They’re going to have to do significant work to make sure they meet all of those rules,” Dean added. “I wanted to make sure the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority knew that they needed to consult with us.”
During public comments, some residents spoke and others provided written statements to the board.
Local resident Les Smith asked the board in his letter to condemn the OTA’s plans.
“I would like to encourage you to pass a resolution or a statement of record speaking against the north, south, east and west connectors that the OTA has planned to build in Norman,” Nairn read his letter to the board. “Such a statement [from the Conservancy District] would go a long way in supporting not building the toll road.”
Ingur Guiffrida, executive director for WildCare Oklahoma, a wildlife rehabilitation center, said the turnpike plans will threaten the habitat of numerous birds including bald eagles and “tens of thousands” of migratory birds and kill various species of wildlife.
“The positioning of this turnpike in East Norman in particular will destroy one of the most important wildlife corridors in Oklahoma, cutting off wildlife access to Lake Thunderbird,” Guiffrida said.
Guiffrida also said it would kill “thousands of wildlife” that call the wetlands and the lake home as a safe habitat. She further said there is no good “alternative route in this county” for a toll road.
Dr. Amy Cerato, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and civil engineer, said OTA has a history of environment complaints that appear to be unresolved, according to an open records request she obtained.
Cerato’s letter to the board quoted several agencies’ letters that cited environmental violations. Complaints alleged sewage water was discharged into intermittent streams near the Cimarron Turnpike in Pawnee, Oklahoma, a letter from Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1994 to OTA read.
No record of compliance was noted in the file, but Cerato said she requested more information on the complaint.
A second violation along the Cimarron Turnpike was noted.
A lawsuit memo from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality to the OTA in November 1997 noted “wastewater seepage” had detrimental effects to “fish and other organisms” at a rest stop along the Cimarron Turnpike, her letter stated.
Hundreds of pages Cerato obtained detailed other documents regarding violations, many of which had no documentation to support actions the OTA had taken to come into compliance, her letter stated.
“The OTA has not addressed environmental concerns in a timely manner if at all,” Cerato wrote. “Allowing the OTA to traverse the already impaired Lake Thunderbird Watershed over any stretch could have disastrous long term consequences that both the Bureau of Reclamation and COMCD need to consider."
“If past behavior on previous turnpike projects is any indication, the OTA will not work to protect the environment either during construction or along the built transportation corridor.”