The city requested that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begin releasing 30,000 acre feet of water from the reservoir to flow into Lake Hefner, one of OKC’s municipal water reservoirs. The corps opened the gates Jan.
30, with the water expected to arrive in the metro in the next week.
Lake levels in much of the state are down because of two-plus years of drought, with Hefner at historic lows.
But some fear that the latest move by Oklahoma City, coupled with previous releases from Canton Lake in 2011, could destroy Canton’s recreation and tourism, as well as almost all of its fish population.
A fishy situation
John Stahl, supervisor of the northwest region for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s fisheries division, predicts that — barring a significant rain — 80 to 90 percent of the lake’s fish will die this summer.
In addition, Canton Lake, built by the Corps of Engineers in 1948, is one of the state’s few homes to established populations of walleye, which are stocked by the Wildlife Department.
But because of low lake levels last year, wildlife officials were unable to net the fish to stock in other areas.
The maximum depth of Canton Lake is 28 feet, and it was already down more than 9 feet at the beginning of this year. Factor in the estimated 7.3 feet the lake will be reduced by with the latest draw of water and another 6.5 feet from evaporation, and the approximate lake level for this year, without rain, might wind up just below 5 feet, according to Stahl.
That will likely cause high levels of phytoplankton that could lead to an enormous fish kill. The Wildlife Department is already preparing for such a possibility.
As long as the lake stays low, it’s unlikely that the lake will be restocked with fish. If the drought drags on long enough, Stahl said, the lake could be completely dead.
That has sparked outrage from many people in the small towns surrounding the lake, according to Mark Fuqua, a board member of the Canton Lake Association.
Canton and surrounding communities see an estimated $20 million in economic activity annually from fishing and recreation. The most recent water release guarantees tough times ahead.
“We’re down to the bottom,” Fuqua said. “We’re done. We’ll essentially be at the inactive pool of this lake.”
He and others urged OKC to wait things out until the spring to see if rain added to the lakes, but to no avail.
Debbie Ragan, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City Utilities Department, said the city held off as long as possible to replenish Hefner to serve its 200,000 customers.
“I think it was the right time,” she said. “Most of us never thought we would be implementing a rotation program or mandatory water rotation in January, so we were looking to what’s ahead.”
Ragan said current lake levels and impact on wildlife were both considerations in making the decision.
“Recreation is suffering at all lakes. That’s just an unfortunate part of the drought when we can’t maintain the water levels,” she said, adding that the city does not request releases for recreational purposes on city lakes.
She said the city is considering other, more immediate and long-term water conservation measures and will probably have to draw more water from Lake Atoka and McGee Creek in southeast Oklahoma, rather than Canton Lake, in the future.
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