The rainy start Thursday to the Oklahoma State Fair might not be the best of news for fairgoers, but the moisture means welcome relief for Oklahoma City's beleaguered drinking water reservoirs.
A second consecutive summer featuring a punishing drought led to more record-breaking water use by Oklahoma City utility customers this year, city Utilities Department spokeswoman Debbie Ragan said. Lake Hefner, Lake Overholser and Lake Stanley Draper are also all well below their normal levels.
A record of 189 million gallons of water used in one day stood for years until about 202 million gallons was used in 2011. But that record was eclipsed yet again on Aug. 1, when customers used 203 million gallons, according to city data.
By the end of July, water use was routinely about 190 million gallons per day, she said. But the cooler temperatures have dropped that to roughly 135 million gallons per day, and the rain that arrived Thursday should help put another dent in usage levels.
Lake Stanley Draper's water level this summer was affected not only by the drought, but also by the Atoka Pipeline project that reduced water flow to the lake from 2009 to 2011. It was down about 20 feet Thursday from its full level, Ragan said.
“We haven't had a chance to really fill it,” she said. “It's probably about a year behind ... because of the drought.”
Lake Hefner also took a “hard hit” from the drought and is down about 12 feet from its full level, Ragan said. Lake Overholser is down about 7 feet.
Oklahoma City also owns water rights in Canton Lake, which is about a two-hour drive northeast of town. The city drew water from Canton Lake last summer, but with the lake down about 8 feet from normal as of Thursday, city officials will likely wait until rain helps it recover before drawing water again, Ragan said.
Last year's drought brought all-time lows in water levels at Overholser and Hefner, but this year's drought wasn't as hard on them, Ragan said. Both lakes reached all-time lows last October when they were each about 3 feet lower than their current levels.
Various projects to expand Oklahoma City's capacity to draw raw water from other parts of the state and to pump out more drinking water are under way. The city is expected to spend nearly half a billion dollars in the next five years on improving its water supply infrastructure.
Oklahoma City officials know that water use will increase along with the city's growing population, especially if weather in recent years is more typical of what's ahead for a while in Oklahoma than the weather of previous decades. The state received an above-average amount of rain for most of the preceding 40 years, Ragan noted.
“We have to continue to expand the water system,” Ragan said.
Though the city is expanding its capability to bring in and clarify water for its utility customers, its right to draw water from southeast Oklahoma is under dispute. The city, state and tribal authorities are embroiled in a lengthy legal battle over water rights currently controlled by the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust.