By Ron J. Jackson Jr.
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 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.
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,” Fuss said. “The more water I used, the more they charged me … So I dug my own wells.”
Decisions like Fuss’ 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. So we were lucky.”
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, mainly to prevent contaminants from seeping into groundwater. As with Fuss’ wells, the cost can run in the thousands.
An alternative to drilling is to haul water, bought from nearby towns or friends.
Several miles to southeast of Glencoe, in the town of Yale, cattle rancher Roy Matlock is running out of options. He bypassed the expense and risk of drilling wells to haul 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.”
Boiling and treating
Although wells suffice for watering cattle, they present complications for people in homes and businesses.
In Yale and Terlton, wells might be the only hope for water if Lone Chimney Lake runs dry. Yale leaders are banking on three six-year-old wells in case of an emergency. The wells are only 20 feet deep, and under normal circumstances, their water would need treatment to meet federal standards, said Yale City Manager Clara Welch.
Yet she said there would be no time to properly treat the water. Yale residents would have to boil their water.
“My greatest concern isn’t boiling the water, though,” Welch added. “We’re just not sure we can generate enough power from our pumps to provide water to the entire town. We believe we would have run our pumps continuously, and we’re not sure that is possible.”
Yale also is building a $650,000 water treatment plant scheduled for completion in August. That facility would allow the town to treat water drawn from wells during any shortage in the lake, but won’t be completed in time to help this summer should Lone Chimney shut down.
“Water is essential,” Welch said. “You have to provide water to your community. I’m concerned, but I would be a lot more concerned if we didn’t have those wells.”
Terlton also intends to gamble on drilling wells if the water from Lone Chimney Lake runs dry.
“We have a couple options,” said Jon Harrod, manager of the district’s distribution plant in the town. “We have four wells drilled, but they’re 20 years old. They were shut down years ago because the iron and manganese levels were too high. We’re hoping DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) would allow us to use those wells, but DEQ won’t let us know until if and when that time arrives.
“We can also drill two new, 100-foot wells. We could have those operational within a week.”
The new wells would come with a $75,000 price tag, as well as the risk of high iron and manganese levels.
“Personally, I don’t think it will come to drilling wells,” Harrod said. “I believe that Stillwater pipeline will be finished ahead of schedule.”
Conserving at home
In Yale, some residents say they are doing their part to conserve water.
Nancy and Don Griffin refused to plant flowers this fall, have watched two trees die in their yard, and water trees and plants from the rainwater barrels. In the house, they only wash large loads of clothes and recycle water whenever possible. They flush toilets as little as necessary.
“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, the water association board member, 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 took a similar approach 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.”
To the northwest, in Morrison, the drought offers a far different experience. It is largely an afterthought.
“I’m proud to say we were prepared,” said Rick McSwain, a lifelong resident and longtime bank president. “The last time we went through a drought with Lone Chimney (Lake), we tapped into Rural Water District No. 2 — water straight from Stillwater. A few months ago, when things started to get real bad, we just switched on the valve and tapped into essentially Stillwater’s water. We have plenty of water.”
The town also replaced its antiquated water lines for its 756 residents. The $1.1 million project saved roughly 500,000 gallons of water alone from leaks, McSwain noted.
“We’re all conserving water,” McSwain said. However, he also acknowledged, “To be honest, I doubt people around here are doing anything different than they normally would with their water usage.”
Motive to save
Lone Chimney members have been blitzed with conservation literature attached to their monthly bills for two years. Some evidence indicates they have decreased their water usage.
Water association customers cut back nearly 4 million gallons of water a month from December to February, said Hensley, the association board member. But some of that decrease can be attributed to member towns like Morrison and Agra going off lake association water.
A closer gauge of water conservation can be found in the district’s distribution plants.
Terlton, a town of 35 in Pawnee County, is part of the Pawnee Rural Water District 2, which serves a total of 1,775 customers as far north as Cleveland on the Arkansas River. Customers on those lines were asked to conserve, and they reduced their water use per capita from 6,278 gallons a month in July to 3,119 gallons in February, a Terlton administrator said. Part of that drop was due to the seasonal cooling, but town officials were impressed.
Residents in Yale also were urged late last summer to reduce their water usage. The townspeople, who consumed 5.9 million gallons of water in July, responded by using only 3.2 million gallons in October, said Welch, the city manager.
“I’ve been very proud of how our town responded,” Welch said. “They heard our pleas, and responded in a big way.”
Research may provide a clearer picture on what has driven Lone Chimney residents to conserve.
Tracy Boyer, an associate professor in agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, is a conservation expert who is overseeing an honor student’s study of the district, focusing mainly 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, 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 people to conserve. 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 rate hikes could be in store for many other Oklahomans if the drought continues and cities look to increase conservation. Oklahoma City is studying whether to charge higher water rates for consumers who use excessive 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.
‘Just not enough’
Dooley looked outside his water district office last month at the rain and sleet pelting Lone Chimney Lake and flashed a half-hearted grin.
“The moisture is good,” he said. “But it’s just enough to fall into the cracks. The ground is so dry.”
Dooley, the distribution operator, knows firsthand. He recently fixed 12 leaks in pipelines near the Lone Chimney water distribution plant over the course of a week because of the dry, cracking soil. The recent rain and snowfall will certainly buy some time, but not enough to ease minds or end a drought.
Hensley said while the moisture is good, “it’s just not enough. What we need is a good four to five inches of heavy rain that will run off and fill the lake.”
He shook his head as if in disbelief, quietly adding, “This is the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state.