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.