Cattleman Mark Fuss spent $8,000 to drill two wells on his sprawling ranch about 10 miles east of Stillwater, gambling he would strike water.
Don and Nancy Griffin, of nearby Yale, are watering their trees and plants with rainwater collected in two 50-gallon barrels.
Yale's 1,250 residents are bracing for a summer in which they might have to boil water for drinking, if the town even has the pumping power to deliver well water to their faucets.
Across the rolling farm and ranch lands of the Lone Chimney Water District, residents are coping with one of the most severe water shortages in Oklahoma. Lone Chimney Lake, the main water supply for 16,000 customers in four counties, has dropped to its lowest level since 1985, when the lake was created with the damming of Camp Creek. Payne County commissioners have issued a declaration of emergency.
Help is on the way, as construction crews are building a 12-mile pipeline from Stillwater's water treatment plant to Lone Chimney's water distribution system. But the project isn't expected to be finished until July or August.
“I'm worried,” said Carl Hensley, one of the Lone Chimney Water Association's nine board members. “We're running out of water quickly.”
Lone Chimney's plight is an extreme example of the effects of Oklahoma's severe drought. But the ways residents are adapting could foreshadow what many other Oklahomans will be forced to do, should the three-year-old drought persist.
Despite recent rains, most of the state remains in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought status. Some cities have enacted mandatory water restrictions. State and local officials have urged people to conserve water.
The efforts may work well with some, not with others. In the Lone Chimney area, pleas to conserve are buttressed by the very real fact that access to any water is in jeopardy. That means residents have become a test case of sorts for how much people will adjust their water use when faced with a crisis.
Lone Chimney's drought
The Lone Chimney Water Association is a private organization that pumps water out of the lake, treats it at a shore-side plant and distributes it through an 87-mile labyrinth of pipelines. The district serves users in Payne, Noble, Pawnee and Lincoln counties.
Because of the drought, the lake is 11½ feet below average, surpassing the previous low of 10 feet in a 2006 drought. The water is four feet above the lake's last intake valve. If the valve is reached, workers will be forced to activate a submerged pump, which would require increased water treatment and testing of oxygen levels.
“We're not sure how much longer we'll be able to provide water,” said J.J. Dooley, the association's distribution operator.
“Since we're a wholesale distributor, it's not like we can issue mandates on water rationing like a city can. All we can do is send out notices, asking people to cut back.”
Work crews have built more than six miles of the 12-mile pipeline, a $3.4 million project financed by a 30-year loan from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. Water district administrators believe the project is still five months from completion.
If the lake water runs out before then, member towns will be on their own. Glencoe, a Payne County town of 600, is especially vulnerable: The town has no backup water source, except for a water tower.
“From what I understand, if Lone Chimney shuts down, Glencoe will only have enough water in its tower to last three hours,” said Zachary Cavett, a Payne County commissioner.
Wells or bust
Worried that lack of water will endanger their cattle, some ranchers are digging their own wells, with varying success.
Fuss, the cattleman, whose ranch is a few miles from the lake, said he dug his two wells for $8,000.
“Best money I ever spent,” he said.
He no longer has to worry about the shortage or pay $400 to $500 a month to the water association.
Cavett drilled two wells on his property near Glencoe. Both were dry.
An alternative to drilling is to haul water, bought from nearby towns or friends.
In Yale and Terlton, wells might be the only hope if Lone Chimney Lake runs dry. In Yale, three six-year-old wells are only 20 feet deep and under normal circumstances their water would need treatment to meet federal standards, said Yale City Manager Clara Welch.
Yet she said there would be no time to properly treat the water. Yale residents would have to boil their water.
Even so, she said, “we're just not sure we can generate enough power from our pumps to provide water to the entire town.”
Yale is building a $650,000 water treatment plant scheduled for completion in August. That facility would treat water drawn from wells in emergencies, but won't be completed in time should Lone Chimney shut down.
In Terlton, a town of 35 in Pawnee County, “we have four wells drilled, but they're 20 years old,” said Jon Harrod, manager of the distribution plant in the town. The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality shut them down years ago because of high iron and manganese levels.
“We're hoping DEQ would allow us to use those wells, but DEQ won't let us know until, if and when, that time arrives,” Harrod said.
Conserving at home
In Yale, some citizens say they are doing their part to conserve water.
Nancy and Don Griffin refused to plant flowers this fall, watched two trees die in their yard, and water trees and plants from the rainwater barrels. In the house, they only wash large loads of clothes and recycle water when possible. They flush toilets as little as possible.
“Do you want water in the tap or do you want beautiful trees?” Nancy Griffin said.
In Glencoe, Town Clerk Shelly Andrews began conserving about three years ago.
“We turn off the faucets whenever we're brushing our teeth or washing our hands,” she said. “Whenever I clean out the dog's water bowl, I always dump the dirty water into a plant vase.”
Motive to save
Lone Chimney members have been blitzed with conservation literature attached to their monthly bills for two years.
Water district customers cut back nearly 4 million gallons of water a month from December to February, but some of that decrease can be attributed to member towns such as Morrison and Agra going off association water.