The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

State, national, world

March 24, 2013

Small-town residents learn to cope with little water

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 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.

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 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 impact 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 enacted mandatory water restrictions, such as assigning even or odd lawn-watering days. State and local officials have urged people to conserve water, publicizing ways to do so.

The efforts may work well with some, less so with others. In the Lone Chimney area, pleas for conservation are bolstered by the real fact access to any water is in jeopardy, at least until the pipeline is built. That means residents have become a test case of sorts for how people modify their consumption when faced with a crisis.

Not that all are engaged.

“I’m sure a lot of people still don’t know what’s about to happen,” Hensley said.

Lone Chimney

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 stretches from the outskirts of Stillwater east to Terlton, south to Agra and as far north as Blackburn on the Arkansas River. It 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 officials and residents to scramble to come up with emergency plans. Then, rains replenished the lake, and some residents say everyone returned to business as usual.

The current drought is more severe. The lake is 111⁄2 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.”

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 Oklahoma Water Resources Board. The system will pump water that originated from Kaw Lake in Kay County. Water district administrators believe the project still  is five months from completion.

If the lake water runs out before the pipeline is finished, member towns will be on their own. Glencoe, a Payne County town of 600, is especially vulnerable. The town has no backup water source, except for a water tower.

 “From what I understand, if Lone Chimney shuts down, Glencoe will only have enough water in its tower to last three hours,” said Zachary Cavett, a Payne County commissioner who lives east of the town.

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