CANTON — Drought-stricken Oklahoma City began withdrawing water Wednesday from Canton Lake in northwest Oklahoma, prompting criticism that the metro area’s ever-increasing thirst could hurt this small town’s economy.
Oklahoma City plans to draw 30,000 acre-feet of water from Canton Lake to replenish local drinking water supplies. Water will flow the 100 miles down the North Canadian River and begin reaching Lake Hefner in about two weeks. Historic low water levels at Lake Hefner have led to mandatory odd-even rationing for yard watering. Many boats in the lake are resting in the dirt or mud as water levels have receded.
Mark Fuqua, a businessman and member of the Canton Lake Association board, said the latest withdrawal of water could sink the tourism industry in Canton, which relies to a large degree on a popular walleye fishery.
Canton Lake is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and itself is far below normal levels because of drought. Restaurants, convenience stores and other businesses that depend on the hundreds of thousands of people who visit each year will suffer, he said.
“We’re concerned they’re potentially killing this lake for five to 10 years,” Fuqua said.
The Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust owns the water rights to the lake.
Marsha Slaughter, Oklahoma City’s utilities department director, said the city put off the release as long as possible. Recent rains that saturated the ground will help ensure the released water makes it to Lake Hefner instead of being absorbed into a dry riverbed.
Impact on tourism
U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, said that he understands “how vital recreation on the lake is to that community and all of northwest Oklahoma.”
“Tragically, Canton is paying a high price in this continuing drought,” he said.
Fuqua said Canton Lake Association board members thought they had made headway in recent meetings aimed at delaying any withdrawal until late winter or early spring, when rains could raise lake levels.
“We didn’t ask them to put off this release indefinitely,” he said.
The Army Corps of Engineers counted 769,139 visits to Canton Lake in 2010. Visitors spent nearly $20 million at businesses within 30 miles, the corps said.
Tourism is central to the economy of Canton, a town of about 625 residents 2 miles south of the lake.
“People come here to fish,” Fuqua said.
Drawing down the lake below current low levels could lead to large-scale deaths of fish as spring gives way to hot, windy summer conditions, Fuqua said.
Beyond that, wildlife officials depend on the lake as a source of fish that are used to stock other lakes in the state, he said.
Water was being released Wednesday afternoon at a rate of 353 cubic feet per second, the Corps of Engineers said. That’s enough to cover a football field 1 foot deep about every 2 minutes.
The water will replenish the supply that serves about 1.2 million people, but isn’t intended to float boats or boost recreation, Slaughter said.
State Sen. Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward, criticized the move.
“This should have been a last-ditch option for Oklahoma City, but the gates are open and the water is flowing out of Canton Lake right now,” Marlatt said. “Not only are the people of western Oklahoma going to suffer, but when the dog days of summer are here and the drought is even worse, citizens in Oklahoma City are going to be impacted as well because of a failure to adopt a proactive water conservation plan.”
Rep. Mike Sanders also was critical of Oklahoma City’s decision to draw down on Canton Lake.
“Where has Oklahoma City been the last three years during this drought? Where is their water conservation plan? Lawns are still being watered in dead of winter. It makes no sense at all,” said Sanders, R-Kingfisher. “Failure of water management planning got them to this point. It was ill-advised to use reserve water first rather than a monitored drawdown of two-thirds full Lake Hefner.”
For the past five decades, Oklahoma City has experienced above-average rainfall, and water releases were few. But the past two droughts have been hard on all Oklahoma lakes and the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center expects the drought to continue in 2013. Most Oklahoma lakes are below normal pool elevation.
Slaughter said Oklahoma City got 29.5 inches of rain in 2012, 7 inches below average.
Pete White, the water trust’s chairman and a member of the City Council, said that, over the years, Oklahoma City has only taken water from Canton Lake when there was a need.
“Oklahoma City is trying to be a good steward of that water,” he said.
“It’s regrettable that bringing water down here creates hardship for anybody.”