Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

Drought-Stricken Oklahoma Communities Dealing With Prospect of Dead Lakes

Will Archer, manager of the Mountain Park Master Conservancy District, at the Tom Steed Reservoir dam.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Will Archer, manager of the Mountain Park Master Conservancy District, at the Tom Steed Reservoir dam.

Most of western Oklahoma is in its fifth year of drought with still no end in sight, despite a wetter-than-normal-end to 2014.  And many of the lakes communities rely on for drinking water are now on the verge of being too low to use. The situation is most dire in Altus, Duncan and Canton.

Tom Steed Lake

The granite boulders and outcroppings that surround Lake Tom Steed, near Altus, are what make is so uniquely beautiful. They also tell a story of drought. The rocks are stained with the remnants of water that used to be here. For lake manager Will Archer, this is all very personal.

“I’ve lived here my whole life, and the creeks I always played on when I was a kid, they don’t run anymore,” Archer says. “Tom Steed is the life and the blood of southwest Oklahoma. Right now we’re providing 100 percent of the water to Altus. We’re providing over half of the water supply to Frederick. We’re providing, I think, about half the water supply to Snyder.”

The lake is in trouble. Only 23 percent of the usable water is left. If nothing is done, Tom Steed could be depleted by November 2016. The rosier outlook has the lake surviving until 2021. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board is working with the federal government on a water study for southwest Oklahoma to determine how much water can be pumped from aquifers, and how best cities can insulate themselves from future droughts.

In the meantime, Altus is widening canals, dusting off its groundwater pumps and rationing. Outdoor watering is allowed only one day a week.

The dry boat ramp at the Chisholm Trail Ridge Campground on the eastern shore of Waurika Lake.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

The dry boat ramp at the Chisholm Trail Ridge Campground on the eastern shore of Waurika Lake.

Waurika Lake

To the east, the city of Duncan is taking drastic measures to stave off the death of Waurika Lake, which only has about 30 percent of its water still available and could run out by spring 2016.

Duncan is about to ban outdoor water use altogether. At a city council meeting on Tuesday, owners of car washes, nurseries and swimming pool companies asked for exemptions and tried to wrap their heads around what this would mean for business.

Duncan Public Works Director Scott Vaughn, like everyone StateImpact talked to in southwest Oklahoma, is confident Waurika and the city’s other lakes will someday recover. It just doesn’t look like it will be any time soon.

“We have no reason to believe otherwise unfortunately,” Vaughn says. “We’ve not seen any kind of forecast that lead us to believe we’ll have the kinds of rainfall we need to bring those lakes back to normal.”

Ron Chapdelaine, owner of Canton Foods, says business is down since Canton Lake was tapped by Oklahoma City two years ago.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Ron Chapdelaine, owner of Canton Foods, says business is down since Canton Lake was tapped by Oklahoma City two years ago.

Canton Lake

Canton Lake northwest of the OKC metro is also on the brink. It serves as a backup water source for Oklahoma City, which drained billions of gallons down the North Canadian River to Lake Hefner two years ago. The move has badly damaged tourism and business in the tiny lake town of Canton, where grocery storeowner Ron Chapdelaine is holding his own thanks to the energy industry, or at least he was.

“Wind farms came in, so that brought a lot of people into town, and the oil field obviously with bringing people into town. Now, wind farm’s done, oil field’s done, so we’ve got to hope water comes back up in the lake,” Chapdelaine says.

But the worry from Lou Ann Wooley with the Canton Lake Association is that Oklahoma City will need to take even more water from the reservoir, which is close to being tapped out. The very bottom layer of water in the lake is never supposed to be used, but Wooley says it can be with special permission from the governor.

“It’s a thing they really don’t want to have to face, because if they draw down past the inactive pool you are signing a death warrant for the fish in the lake,” Wooley says. “That recreation, it’ll never rebound from a draw beyond that I don’t think.”

So far, Oklahoma City hasn’t needed more Canton Lake water, but Wooley says that can change quickly. 2015 is critical for all three of these lakes, Tom Steed, Waurika, and Canton. If it doesn’t rain — a lot — they lakes could be lost as a source of water.

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  • law

    The North Canadian watershed is the main source of water for the north side of Oklahoma City, not the backup source.

  • RobMF

    It’s climate change, stupid. Stop burning fossil fuels it will conserve water and help stop the damage. Stop eating so much meat. It will conserve water and help stop the damage. Support national and international efforts to stop climate change. Don’t have one day for lawn washing. Sew the land with biochar. Live far, far more gently. Keep life sacred. All life. These are the last warnings.

    • T Keern

      What’s the difference between climate change and global warming?

      • RobMF

        One is cause another is effect.

    • Heartland Patriot

      The Great Plains were once thought of as a near desert. It was only after increased rains over a several decade period that people began to really settle there. Now the dry cycle has returned and the effects are being felt. When the cycle someday returns to wetter conditions and the Plains suffer floods, will you blame that on “climate change”, too?

      • RobMF

        Worst drought in 1200 years and you guys are still spinning yarns and dropping anecdotes. Heartland? So what is this, the 1,000th time you guys have witch hunted a scientist or conducted an Animal Farm style email ‘investigation.’

        Heartland is like the people in the 60s and 70s who told spread all those fallacious advertising campaigns stating that cigarettes are good for you. Except this time, it’s worse, because the legions of lying lawyers and marketers are backed by oil company billions.

        You know that quote about fascism coming to America wrapped in the the flag and carrying a Bible? That’s Heartland. Except this time it’s worse, because it’s about supporting the lies of the John Birch Society Koch brothers, or the wage suppressing activities of the Walmart Waltons, or helping people like Mitt Romney ship jobs overseas. It’s still worse because the climate change denial you guys spread will kill orders of magnitude more people than the lies you spread about cigarettes a half century ago.

        So keep lying. I’m sure many people will, unfortunately, believe you, then curse you Stephen their wells dry out, as they are doing now in Oklahoma and California. Or when their crops go, or they can no longer herd cattle or where, as in Florida, they now have to pay property taxes to fight sea level rise, or when the next big storm hits the east coast and the urge rides in on a launching pad 1 foot, 2 foot, 3 foot higher, or when the flank of West Antarctica completes a now irreversible collapse into the sea.

        There are scientists around the world to counter every lie you spin and yet you still speak as if you have some kind of authority. But you have no authority. You are nothing. You are hollow men stuffed with straw peddling a land of ash. You are the servants of the destroyers of the Earth and may God have more mercy on your souls than the books of Revelation and Isaiah says he will…

    • Ron Gregory

      You have no clue as to what is going on with your climate change rhetorical comment. If it was climate change then the whole country would be feeling the effects of the drought. Its a dry cycle and they have had them before, can you remember the dust bowl era. Probably not since you can only remember what the government tells you.

      • George S

        Climate change would not put the entire country in drought. Increasing global temperatures would cause more intense cases of regional patterns, meaning dry areas can experience much longer drought periods and places like the southeast will experience stronger hurricanes. How about listening to scientists and climatologists who’ve actually spent their lives devoted to the subject?

      • RobMF

        The worst drought for the Southwest in 1200 years says you are as wrong as wrong can be. I feel sorry for your children. They have a father who won’t even stand up for their future. Sad.

      • mruglypig

        This and other extreme weather phenomena closely follow the predictions laid out by climate scientists over the past 30 years. More and longer periods of drought in some places, particularly the drier areas getting drier, and more severe storms and flooding in other areas. As the climate warms, the atmosphere holds more water in the form of water vapor, so it rains less in many areas. At the same time with increased energy in the atmosphere, the weather is more volatile and with more H2O in the atmosphere, when it finally reaches saturation it comes down in severe storms with massive flooding. Exactly what we have been seeing all over the world.

  • obviously

    It seems to me that, if the water situation in Altus is that bad, officials should ban ALL outdoor watering. How important is a green yard in July when you have no water to drink?

    • Nunya

      We are already on a one day watering restriction as it is. People just need to abide by the rules. What they need to stop is all the car washes we have in this town. We have about as many as we do churches around here. Make ppl get out and wash their cars during the time they are allotted during the week.

    • Ralf T. Dog

      The problem is fire danger. You can ban all watering, however, people will need to remove the grass from their yard and replace it with rocks or such.

  • hidrocefalia

    Climate change happens. Worst drought in 1200 yrs…, NOT.
    Look at Figures 5a-f

  • http://www.solvingtornadoes.com Solving Tornadoes

    Wind farms destroy the pathways in the atmosphere that storms employ to become established:

    Storms (all storms) involve the emergence of conduit-like structures (ie. jet streams, tornadoes) that transport energy from high (in the form of low pressure) and lift moist air up, one result of which being rainstorms. Starting from the jet streams that run along the top of the troposphere, these conduits grow downward to initiate storms. But they can only do this if the prerequisite factors underlying their growth are present. There are, basically, two prerequisites: 1) Long smooth distinct boundary layers between dry and moist bodies of air, and 2) Energy.

    Here’s the problem. Wind farms introduce turbulence that destroys the smoothness, length, and distinctness of boundary layers between bodies of moist air and bodies of dry air and they remove (harvest) energy.

    Are you convinced? No. I don’t expect you to be. Meteorologists have made such a mess of the science that there is little chance anybody can filter out the nonsense. Don’t take my word on it. Instead I suggest you take a look at the maps that show an unusually high degree of correspondence between the location and timing of the drought with construction of wind farms, especially in Texas and California.





    You will never get anybody that has been paid to pretend they understand something they don’t understand to admit they don’t understand it.


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