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Drought bout

Record low levels at Lake Hefner prompt city officials to look at drawing water from Canton Lake.

Clifton Adcock January 16th, 2013

Oklahoma City officials are considering their options now that three lakes supplying the city’s drinking water have reached alarmingly low levels.

Lake Hefner
Credit: Shannon Cornman

Lake Hefner, the primary source of the city’s drinking water, is around 17 feet below maximum capacity, said Debbie Ragan, spokeswoman for the city utility department.

In addition, Lake Overholser is 7 feet below maximum capacity; Lake Stanley Draper is also 17 feet below capacity; and Lake Atoka, which supplies Draper, is 12 feet below capacity.

Many of the boats and docks at Hefner are mired in mud as a result of low lake levels, the ramifications of the region’s two-year drought.

The situation has gotten so bad that the city is considering drawing water from Canton Lake northwest of Oklahoma City.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Canton Lake for water supply, flood control and irrigation. Oklahoma City owns all of the water rights in the lake.

“We know that Canton Lake’s recreation will suffer. When we take the water, that lake level will lower,” Ragan said. “We’re putting it off as long as we can, hoping for rain.”

While the city has received some complaints from Lake Hefner boaters about the water levels, the city does not make special water withdrawals from lakes purely for recreational purposes.

“The boat owners and people who like to recreate at the lake are concerned, but we stress that Lake Hefner is a water-supply lake and it was built by the city in 1947 as a water-supply reservoir,” Ragan said. “We turn to the release only when your drinking-water supply is threatened, or lake levels are lower than what we would like to see.”

Daryl Williams, forecaster for the National Weather Service in Norman, said there is some hope — albeit modest — for above-average or average rainfall this winter. Each of the past two years has seen about 7 inches of rainfall less than the 30-year average, and conditions are even worse in northwest and southwest Oklahoma. While recent rains have helped slightly, it was not enough storms to break the pattern.
Credit: Shannon Cornman

“We need a series of these,” Williams said. “The short answer on droughts is it takes months of belowaverage precipitation to get us in a drought and months of above-average precipitation to get us out.”

Long-range models from the Climate Prediction Center offer little reassurance that Central Oklahoma will be out of the drought any time soon.

“It’s not looking good,” Williams said. “There’s nothing pointing to anything driving a wet period through the rest of the winter to early spring.”

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01.17.2013 at 11:48 Reply

The city has not been even remotely proactive about this.  This problem has been evident for no less than a year.  If this is how we choose to address climate change we're going to be in a lot of trouble once we hit the tipping point; it'll be too late to fix anything.

Move along, nothing to see here, Climate Change is a myth, etc... etc.....

Maybe instead of building the XL oil Pipeline we need to build a water pipeline and a vast collection of desalinization plants.  And the great thing about that is you won't get the environmental pushback that you see with the oil pipeline.  Everyone loves water.


01.18.2013 at 10:48 Reply

Board members of the Canton Lake Association met with Marsha Slaughter manager of the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust and her colleagues to discuss concerns of the intended drawdown of Canton Lake. Mrs. Slaughter and her organization, which currently hold a contract with the US Army Corps of Engineers for water storage rights in Canton Lake wish to take another 30,000 acre feet of water which would lower the lake another 7.3 feet.This proposed draw of water would be to provide water for nearly 200,000 residents of OKC according to Mrs. Slaughter.

In addition to the already 9 feet below normal pool the lake is at currently, this would bring the Canton lake level to it’s lowest point since 1951. According to experts from the Oklahoma Dept of Wildlife, it is very likely Canton will experience a major fish kill in the lake next summer if spring rains do not refill the lake to a healthy level. Rains that certainly can not be counted on with the current drought pattern enveloping this part of the nation.  

For nearly two hours both sides expressed their concerns and tried to gain a better understanding of the other’s point of view. There were questions and discussion as to any other options that might possibly be available to at least postpone the taking of water until March or April. A delay would allow a period of time for spring rains which would in turn lessen the devastating effects a drawdown would have on Canton Lake.  Beneficial spring rains in central and western Oklahoma could supplement or fill storage lakes Overholser and Hefner and greatly reduce or even eliminate the release of water from Canton Lake.

The lack of education and water rationing and conservation on the part of the residents of Oklahoma City was discussed and met with arguments from Mrs. Slaughter’s camp. One of which was Oklahoma City is currently one of the most efficient cities in the nation as far as water consumption rates per population. While this sounds good in theory, it is the opinion of the Canton Lake Association that rationing and conservation orders could have at least been implemented beforehand thus reducing the crisis before us now. The result of those orders could have been the gap needed until the arrival of beneficial  spring rains, which at least in western Oklahoma have the potential to greatly reduce or diffuse the issue altogether.

The Canton Lake Association members expressed the need for education to begin immediately for the residents of Oklahoma City and surrounding communities who rely on the water from the lake, to understand the severity of the current drought situation and how to implement water conserving practices which should have been implemented months ago. It is Canton Lake Association’s opinion that the Oklahoma City  residents served by the water from Canton Lake have little to no idea of the severity of the drought situation or the Water Utilities Trust’s ability or inability to provide them water once the water from Canton Lake has been exhausted. Canton Lake not having water for Oklahoma City next year could be highly likely once this water draw is taken, coupled with if Canton Lake does not receive needed spring rains to replenish lake supplies.

Essentially Mrs. Slaughter confessed after a lot of questioning, that her organization had no viable second option in place at this time to capture water. She stated they had purchased the rights to the water storage in Canton Lake and they intended to execute those rights. Apparently little planning has been done for such a drought situation which should have been foreseeable given the droughts of the past.

There is currently 40,000 acre feet of water available in lake Hefner, at least half of which could possibly be used to provide the residents served by Canton Lake water, with over 200 days of water or more. When questioned as to why they can’t use that water to buy time to get us into spring rain season before a Canton Lake withdraw, Mrs. Slaughter expressed that she is leery of trying to rely on that water as they have never been this low on water and she is concerned they can’t access that water due to poor engineering of the pumping structure from the lake to the treatment facility.  This answer seemed skeptic and unacceptable to the Canton Lake Association who believes that Oklahoma City has an obligation to exhaust all of their resources before pulling Canton Lake down to unhealthy levels that could cause massive ecological and economic devastation to the lake and to communities in Northwest Oklahoma.

Canton Lake Association members pleaded with Mrs. Slaughter to hold off as long as she can before taking the draw from Canton, because once the water is gone from Canton it can’t be put back. The drought is worse in Western OK than it is near the City and it’s likely that the rain needed to refill Canton won’t fall out west this spring. It’s more likely that rain will fall between Canton and OKC than west of Canton, so the city could receive needed rainfall while Canton remains dry. Canton lake will be ruined possibly for years for no reason if she takes the draw now, and then Hefner and Overholser fill from rainwater that falls in central OK.

Jobs will be lost and businesses will be closed in Western OK due to poor planning. A wonderful lake will potentially be ruined for years to come. Many years of effort from the OK Dept of Wildlife, and millions of taxpayer dollars will be wasted when all the fish are killed. When algae takes over the shallow waters it could potentially pollute and make the water unusable for the residents of OKC for quite some time in the future. At the very least all the decaying fish corpses will make the water less desirable for drinking.

It is also  alarming that the Water Utilities Trust just keep adding people to the pool who rely on Canton lake for their water needs, by allowing other communities to draw water from their resources. Water is not an unlimited resource, especially in a time of drought. Yet for the most part it is being treated as such by many residents of OKC who have not been made aware of the severity of the drought situation.

This isn’t about boats and recreation at this point, it’s about survival. Survival of communities and businesses that might make it through one year of the lake being low, but won’t make it through 5 to 8 years of rebuilding a fish population and waiting for the water to clear up from the algae.

At the close of the meeting board members of the Canton Lake Association felt at least something had been accomplished if only in the fact that Mrs. Slaughter is now planning to wait at least 2 to 3 weeks before taking the draw unless we receive rainfall to saturate the river bed between Canton and OKC. In which case she may call for the release sooner, but we believe  she will call for the water sometime in the next month regardless of rain to soak the river or not. That action will potentially wreck Canton Lake for years and many parts of the economies in the communities around it.

I now have a much greater understanding of why the Tribes are fighting so hard for their water rights in Sardis lake and why they don’t want the City pulling water from there, as there seems to be little regard for those around the lakes and their lives as long as the City keeps thriving and can continue it’s “business as usual” appearance.


01.19.2013 at 12:10 Reply

While I would like to be excited about and commend OKC on their recent decision to ration water, I can't and I can't be silent about this PR stunt. A self proclaimed expert on water usage, in the meeting with the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust, sat right across the table from me and stated that even and odd watering doesn't conserve water but only dictates when it's pumped. Also, how many people are watering their lawns in the dead of winter and if so why?? While I am happy for them to start mandatory water rationing, I think it's of little effect at this time, and it's a year too late and a million gallons short in the effort!
I'm not trying to be negative but just state the facts, they still don't realize the severity of this drought and it's effects on NW Oklahoma. These mandatory ration steps should have been in place a year ago and we wouldn't be where we are now about to lose one of our most valued resources in Western OK. Canton Lake. Someone should have taught them the 5 P's!! Proper planning prevents poor performance! Please pray for rain and that the people in power there have learned their lesson. Amen.


01.21.2013 at 07:18

Water Rationing might have some positive impact if the city actually enforced it.  Maybe I don't see anyone watering their lawn right now, but I did witness people violating water rationing policies during the summer.  Seems to me that law enforcement should be told to look out for such violations when on route.  Once people start getting fines for being ignorant, it should break them of these bad habits.

I agree that the city's actions have come at least a year too late.  I'm not sure prayer is going to solve this problem.  If anything, perhaps this a lesson that the politicians have to learn the hard way.  Though it's a damn shame that the majority will suffer for the ignorance of the few.