The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

April 6, 2013

Learning to conserve

Education about saving water resources a silver lining to dark cloud that holds no rain for area lakes, wildlife

By Bridget Nash Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Water flows in an instant when we turn the tap, there are bottles and jugs of it at local supermarkets and of late it has been falling from the sky, so it’s easy to see why it’s hard for some to realize we are in a drought.

But northwest Oklahoma is experiencing extreme drought conditions, and it affects more than our ability to water the lawn every day.

One easy way to see it is to drive out to countryside ponds or area lakes. The most visible poster child for the drought this year has been Canton Lake.

“The drought is affecting us all, but it’s especially affected Canton because of the perpetual water storage contract that has been in effect since 1991,” said Tom Adams, Canton Lake Association board member.

The Canton impact

The contract allowed Oklahoma City to use 30,000 acre-feet of water from Canton Lake to help alleviate its own water shortage.

“Seeing how it was low to begin with, it has been virtually devastating,” said Adams.

Currently there is no water access to the lake’s boat ramps, even though recent precipitation raised the lake about a foot. Adams said the lake’s Canadian Day Use ramp is open but only jon boats (flat-bottomed boats) are able to launch from the ramp.

For a community that depends heavily on tourism aspects of a nearby lake, Canton’s economic impact from the loss of lake traffic can’t be ignored.

“The impact that Canton has in a 30-mile radius is annually about 20 million dollars,” said Adams. “Those figures are compiled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

“These numbers are just staggering,” said Jeff Converse, president of Canton Lake Association. “Canton has 770,000 visits a year.”

Converse said 240 jobs are affected by Canton Lake.

“You can only make guesses as to what the impact is going to be,” said Converse.

Before Oklahoma City drew its water in January, Canton already had been seeing less-than-encouraging economic numbers due to the impact of the drought. Converse said since fiscal year 2012 began, Blaine County has seen a 67 percent reduction in sales tax revenue and had an 18 percent reduction in population.

“Blaine County is kind of getting nailed,” said Converse.

Adams said there is one bright side to all the dark news.

“The situation is getting better with water education,” said Adams.

Adams said cities are starting to take measures to conserve water, and individuals also are taking responsibility for water usage.

“Regrettably, we are more likely to have another summer like we had last summer,” said Adams. “It will be especially hard on Canton. If we have another one of those years we could have some devastating effects on fish and wildlife, and it’s those things we would like to protect.”

Recently, the wildlife department visited Canton to net and tag the walleye fish, said Adams.

“There was a lot of fungus on the walleye,” Adams said. “This is a condition that is happening due to low water. Canton supplies the walleye for most of the lakes in Oklahoma. That did not happen this year.”

In addition to being part of Canton Lake Association, Adams also owns a boat storage business.

“My business is fine for this year,” said Adams whose patrons pay a year in advance. “If we have another summer like we did last year, I can conceivably see my business dropping by half.”

Canton Lake may be in the spotlight, but the drought affecting Oklahoma reaches much farther.

“You can’t have blinders on. You kind of have to work together,” said Adams. “The only way to combat it, if it’s not going to rain, is to conserve water and recycle water. We just need a long period of rain to recharge our watersheds and aquifers.”

Putting salt back in Plains

Salt Plains is another area suffering due to the drought. The area’s wildlife is seeing much of the negative impact.

“The main thing is our winter waterfowl population was down quite a bit,” said Salt Plains refuge biologist Glen Hensley.

Each year 90-95,000 geese roost overnight at Salt Plains during the winter months.

“I believe we maxed out for a short period in November at about 50,000 geese,” said Hensley. “We usually peak in goose numbers in late December, early January.”

December 2012 saw about 17,000 geese compared to its usually 95,000 said Hensley.

“They moved on. They didn’t stick around.”

Hensley said the 50,000 ducks usually come in during peak time, but this winter only saw about 20,000 ducks.

“We maybe had 20,000 tops in about November, a month early,” said Hensley.

The migrating waterfowl depend each year on Salt Plains as a place to rest.

“Salt Plains is kind of a rest and refueling station along the migration,” said Hensley.

Like Canton, Great Salt Plains Lake is suffering a receding shoreline.

“The lake is really low,” said Hensley. “There’s really no way to judge how low. The lake elevation gauge is on the dam, and the water isn’t to the dam. The water line is about half a mile from the dam.”

The waterfowl aren’t the only birds affected by the drought at Salt Plains.

“It’s affected the eagles because they eat ducks and fish,” said Hensley. “The oxygen supply was depleted (in the water) and we had a fish kill. The mid-winter eagle survey was down this year.”

The lack of water also prevented the area’s wetlands from flooding, which hinders the reproduction of certain insect species, such as dragonflies, and reduces the amount of available drinking water for other wildlife.

Salt Plains hosts a public hunting area, but due to the lack of birds in the area, Salt Plains and other places in the area saw fewer hunters. These hunters usually come from all over the state and other states.

“Farmers might have had reduced income because of their hunting leases,” said Hensley.

The salt crystal digging area was successful throughout the past year, but the other areas at Salt Plains saw fewer visitors.

“We hope it’s going to get better, but I think it’s going to be another bad year,” said Hensley. “We have wet periods and dry periods. Hopefully it gets wet again.”