TUSKAHOMA — A Texas developer canceled plans for a $1.5 billion hydroelectric storage project in this southeast Oklahoma river community last week, citing protests from 200 residents and opposition from the Choctaw Nation.

Tomlin Energy LLC proposed using Kiamichi River outflow to produce energy that would stabilize grids in Oklahoma and Texas during extreme weather. Promises of creating 500 new jobs, generating $12 million in annual county tax revenue and providing ambulance service to an area that lacks it sold a Pushmataha County commissioner and a state legislator on the plan.

A Pushmataha County district court judge revoked water rights the state had granted in 2019, ruling that Tomlin Energy failed to provide landowners sufficient notice of the plan. When resubmitting a water use application to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, developer Daniel Tomlin Jr. said he sent more than 19,000 letters to residents. 

Their response convinced him to scuttle the project on Wednesday.

“The local people, they just don’t get it, I don’t think,” Tomlin said. “They started all these rumors and passed them around. As soon as we got something worked out with the water board, we were going to get another lawsuit, which we don’t have time for. We already lost two and a half years on that.” 

In interviews with Oklahoma Watch conducted prior to Tomlin’s decision, landowners express fears the proposed plant and accompanying reservoirs would doom the already shallow Kiamichi River and the valley it nurtures by lowering natural water levels, destroying private wells and hurting tourism. 

Charlotte Robbins Leonard grows most of her food on overflow patterns in the valley.  She said the fight project taught her a lesson for the next time someone tries to use resources her community relies on.

“We need to pay more attention to our neighbors. We need to look out for each other better,” Leonard said. “If people would’ve done the right thing and talked to their neighbors this would have never happened in the beginning.”

Tomlin said a hydroelectric storage facility in the Kiamichi River basin would have stabilized Texas and Oklahoma’s electrical grids during extreme weather conditions and compensated for gaps in energy not being produced by windmills. 

“If you got a bunch of these turbines out there and all of a sudden you have a lull in the wind, something’s got to make up the difference,” Tomlin said, “And if something doesn’t happen, then that’s when all of a sudden the lights start going out and we’ve got brown-outs.” 

The Choctaw Nation’s opposition to the project, expressed in Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton’s Nov. 21 letter to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, was the “last straw.”

“Our Environmental Protection Service has expressed major concern based on the stress of the amount of water to be taken from the Kiamichi River,” wrote Batton, whose tribal service area comprises Pushmataha and portions of 10 other southeastern Oklahoma counties.

“That’s the last straw because once the Indians are against you, you’re going to have a hard time getting a license at (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission),” Tomlin said. 

 The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licenses developers of energy-producing projects.

Ruby June Tichy owns 275 acres in Tuskahoma. For 15 years she’s maintained a homestead with two barns, a horse, donkey, cattle and rolling hay meadows. 

She said that on a “lucky” year, the Kiamichi River floods twice because of heavy rains. That’s when her hay meadows grow three feet high. It’s when her cattle can drink from three ponds on her ranch and when her hens find earthworm snacks crawling in the mud.

Plans for the scuttled project showed 40 acres of Tichy’s land and swathes of her neighbors’ plots were to be included in the construction of a 200-acre reservoir holding over 10 billion gallons.

“It’s probably a third of a mile from my house to the river, and I was told at one time that there would be a big old levee with a fence at the top, across my property line, so things can’t get into their pit of water,” Tichy said.

Bobby Kozel, 56, is Ruby June Tichy’s partner and a landowner in Albion, 10 miles upstream of the Kiamichi River. The animals on their ranch rely on ponds on the property to fill up with rain water and river overflow. (Lionel Ramos/ Oklahoma Watch)

Tichy and other landowners said Pushmataha County Commissioner John Roberts tried to convince them to sell their property to Tomlin. Roberts did not respond to Oklahoma Watch’s phone calls for a response to the project’s cancellation. In previous interviews, Roberts stressed the need for economic development.

“If we want to stop seeing our kids have to go off to Montana, Colorado, Oklahoma City and Texas or wherever to work because there’s no work here, we’re going to need to have a little industry here,” said Roberts, who represents a county where 18% of residents live below the poverty line. 

Roberts and state House Rep. Justin Humphrey, who both won re-election unopposed in November, were the project’s most vocal supporters.

“We’re talking about one of the poorest counties in the state of Oklahoma, and here’s a game changer to really turn that around. Now we’re locked in and not seeing any progress,” said Humphrey, R-Lane. “But I definitely understand why a private business would not want to take on a tribe.” 

In Tichy’s eyes, the kind of growth her elected leaders want in the area is already there. She said the river drives tourism and it keeps fresh food on the dinner table when the nearest Walmart is 45 minutes away. 

“We don’t have to destroy the place to bring money here,” Tichy said. “Besides, I bet Tomlin won’t ever have to write a letter to protect the land he lives on.”

Charlotte Robbins Leonard and her brother, Virgil, sit in their ATV and look across a nearly 700-acre plot of land in Tuskahoma, purchased to be a part of Tomlin Energy’s $1.5 billion hydroelectric storage plant. Tomlin said protests from the community prompted its decision to cancel the project last week. (Lionel Ramos/ Oklahoma Watch)

Lionel Ramos is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at 405-905-9953 or lramos@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @LionelRamos_.

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