Kiamichi River hydropower project founders


By Mike W. Ray

Southwest Ledger


An out-of-state company’s plan to build a hydropower plant on an eastern Oklahoma river in order to generate electricity for Texas foundered on the shoals of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Johann Tse of Dallas, Texas, was notified March 21 by a FERC official that Southeast Oklahoma Power Company’s plans for a Kiamichi River hydropower project were rejected because of multiple deficiencies.

Even before that letter was delivered, the SEOPC project was swimming upstream against local residents and tribal officials.

Tse, president of SEOPC, filed paperwork notifying FERC that SEOPC planned to build and operate a 1,200-megawatt hydroelectric power plant along the Kiamichi River in Pushmataha County and transmit the electricity to an Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) substation at Paris, Texas.

More than 200 southeastern Oklahoma residents opposed to the project – many of whom have lived in the region for generations – gathered March 17 in Albion, eight miles southwest of Talihina, to hear a presentation about the proposal and to discuss options.

“We lost the battle with Oklahoma City but don’t think we’ve lost the war,” said William “Bill” Redman, a member of the governing board of the Kiamichi River Legacy Alliance. The KRLA has fought the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and its approval of OKC’s application to siphon 115,000 acre-feet of water (almost 37.5 billion gallons per year) from the Kiamichi River.

Southwest Ledger contacted the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust last week about the SEOPC proposal. “We have no comment,” replied Jasmine Morris, public information and marketing manager for OKC’s Utilities Department.

During the meeting at Albion, Choctaw Nation District 7 Tribal Council member Joey Tom of Wright City and Choctaw representative Megan McBride expressed their opposition to the SEOPC project.

In a March 7 memorandum, FERC archaeologist Catherine Roberts wrote that tribal members noted the Choctaws have a water rights agreement “under development with the State of Oklahoma” and water rights are “an important issue for the tribe.” Choctaw representatives also pointed out that part of SEOPC’s project area is “culturally significant” to their nation.

A major concern of area residents was that yet another suitor was trying to take an enormous volume of water – 118,184 acre-feet – from the river.

Another worry of area residents was that FERC approval of the SEOPC project might result in condemnation of their land. If so, a company that has no ties whatsoever to Oklahoma could initiate eminent domain proceedings to seize property in Pushmataha and McCurtain counties in order to build a hydropower plant that would suck billions of gallons of water from the Kiamichi River to generate electricity for the exclusive use of Texans.

The issue became moot March 21 when FERC notified Tse and SEOPC of its decision.

FERC spurns

SEOPC plans

Nicholas Jayjack, acting director of FERC’s Division of Hydropower Licensing, informed Tse that SEOPC’s plans filed with the agency on Jan. 31, 2024, for the proposed Kiamichi project were rejected because of multiple deficiencies.

SEOPC “has not provided sufficient documentation,” Jayjack explained.

Link  to FERC:  :file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/20240321-3018_P-14890-003.pdf)

For example, SEOPC’s documentation of outreach to affected Native American tribes and resources agencies “is incomplete.” The record does not “demonstrate due diligence in identifying potential effects of the proposed project on Tribal interests and resources,” Jayjack wrote.

A list SEOPC provided of landowners who potentially would be affected by the hydropower project “does not include addresses for many of the landowners and does not identify who on the list has been contacted,” Jayjack related.

FERC regulations “specifically require that a Pre-Application Document (PAD) include a description of the existing environment and any known or anticipated resources effects,” Jayjack stressed.

SEOPC’s PAD did not identify “the potential effects” from withdrawing 38.5 billion gallons of water from the Kiamichi River would have on three species of federally threatened mussels that are known to inhabit the river near or downstream of the proposed hydropower plant.

“Specifically, the PAD does not consider the results of studies … that indicate mussel mortality has been linked to low water levels in the Kiamichi River during droughts,” Jayjack pointed out.

Weldon Robbins recalls 2011 as an exceptionally dry period along the river. His brother, Johnny Robbins, remembers he drove a Kawasaki Mule a mile and a quarter in the riverbed that year “and never got the tires wet.”

Sigh of relief

Relief quickly spread throughout southeastern Oklahoma as word of the FERC ruling against SEOPC was relayed by phone, email and text, but residents of the region remain on alert.

“We can’t let our guard down,” Johnny Robbins told the Ledger, because SEOPC or somebody else “will try it again.”

“We are cautiously optimistic,” said KRLA’s Bill Redman.

In December 2022, Tomlin Energy based in Texas canceled its plans for a $1.5 billion hydropower project along the Kiamichi River near Tuskahoma, citing protests from 200 area residents and opposition from the Choctaw Nation. Debbie Leo, of Moyers, said that when Tomlin Energy approached her about selling her property, she told them, “We can’t drink money.”

A study prepared for the Oklahoma Water Resources Center at Oklahoma State University noted that the Kiamichi Basin has “a natural-resource and tourism-driven economy.”

“That river is our lifeblood,” said Weldon Robbins, 60, who bought some land near Albion a little over 30 years ago. A former welder who’s now a dirt contractor, Robbins owns 240 acres along the banks of the Kiamichi River on which he raises hay that he sells to a neighbor. His brother, Johnny Robbins, 64, has 20 acres of abutting property.

The Kiamichi River is home to a wide diversity of fish species, especially catfish, minnows, shiners, and sunfish. Surveys conducted in 2012 by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) and researchers from Oklahoma State University sampled 54 species of fish along the river.

The Kiamichi also is inhabited by diverse freshwater mussel populations. Research conducted by several institutions between 1995-2005 indicated the river is host to nearly 30 species of mussels.

Johnny Robbins said it’s not uncommon to see bears, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, beavers and otters, deer, eagles, hawks and owls – and nuisance feral hogs – in the area.

Weldon Robbins recalled “squirrel hunting and deer hunting, our kids growing up, swimming in the river, picnics, the hard work picking up rocks, hauling hay” – typical family memories for rural Oklahomans.

Johnny Robbins, whose front porch is less than two feet from the Kiamichi riverbank, said his children and grandchildren learned to swim and fish in the river. “You can’t replace those memories.”