By Ron J. Jackson, Jr.
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — 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 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 can even muster enough 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 only water supply for 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.
Town officials are scrambling for backup water sources. The district’s 16,000 customers nervously await the day that Lone Chimney Lake has no more water to deliver.
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, on their own or by mandate, should the three-year-old drought persist.
‘Despite rain and snow in February, most of the state remains in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought status.
Farm ponds throughout central and western Oklahoma are dry for the first time in decades; lake levels have plummeted. Some cities have enacted mandatory water restrictions, such as assigning lawn-watering days. State and local officials have urged people to conserve water, publicizing ways to do so.
The Lone Chimney Water Association 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.
Seven years ago Lone Chimney Lake dipped to unprecedented low levels during a then-historic drought, causing people and towns to scramble to draw up emergency plans.
The current drought is more severe. The lake is 11 and one-half feet below average, surpassing the previous low of 10 feet in 2006. 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.”
Wells or Bust
Worried that lack of water will endanger their cattle, some ranchers are digging their own wells.
Fuss, the cattleman, whose ranch is a few miles southeast of the lake, said he dug his two wells for $8,000 because he was fed up with the stress of the shortage and the $400 to $500 a month he was paying the water association. The association has raised rates and imposed surcharges in recent years.
“Best money I ever spent,” said Fuss. “The more water I used, the more they charged me and so I dug my own wells.”
Decisions like Fuss’s are not made lightly.
“I was lucky we struck water,” Fuss said. “I have a neighbor six miles to the north who dug for water and found nothing. Another neighbor a mile east of me dug and didn’t get enough water to water his garden.”
Cavett, the Payne County commissioner, drilled two wells on his property near Glencoe. Both were dry.
“Drilling wells is a gamble in this region,” Cavett said. “Even if you hit water, you don’t know if it will be drinkable because the sulfur content can sometimes be very high.”
Oklahoma law allows property owners to drill for water with few restrictions if the water is for household purposes, farm or domestic animals, or irrigation of gardens, orchards or lawns up to three acres. Well drillers must get a state license, and their wells must be built to regulation to prevent contaminants from seeping into groundwater.
An alternative to drilling is to haul water, bought from nearby towns or friends.
Yale cattle rancher Roy Matlock hauled water daily to his cattle for five months last summer with a 275-gallon tank mounted to his truck.
The 17-mile round trip and the fear of losing cattle forced him to sell 15 cows and 30 calves. For now, the remainder of his herd grazes on his acreage on the outskirts of Yale, drinking water from a dwindling pond.
“If this drought continues,” Matlock said, “I’ll be out of the cattle business in two years.”
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 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. “It’s just the choices we have to make right now.”
Hensley said he refuses to wash his vehicle in town, reuses dishwater and has let his lawn turn brown.
“We had a tree we planted 50 years ago die on us,” Hensley said. “We lost a great shade tree, but we’re just trying to do our part.”
In Glencoe, longtime resident and town clerk Shelly Andrews began conserving about three years ago.
“We lost a lot of outdoor plants. 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
Tracy Boyer, a conservation expert and an associate professor in agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, is overseeing an honor student’s study of the district, focusing on Glencoe.
“We looked at non-paid and paid incentives,” Boyer said. “We’ve found that people will generally voluntarily cut back on their water usage as long as there is publicity to remind them. But once those promotional campaigns begin to fade, people fall back into their old habits.”
“Ultimately, Boyer said, “the best way for people to conserve water is when it hits them financially.”
The Lone Chimney association has raised its water rates twice in the past two years to spur conservation. The association plans to raise them again to help pay for the pipeline. The district also has imposed surcharges on the first 1,000 and 2,000 gallons consumed.
Such hikes could be in store for many other Oklahomans if the drought continues. Oklahoma City is studying whether to charge higher water rates for consumers who use above-normal amounts.
The state also has made conservation a priority. Last year, the Legislature approved the Water for 2060 Act, which sets a goal that Oklahoma consume no more fresh water in 2060 than was consumed in 2012.