OKLAHOMA CITY — Amid an ongoing drought, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday began releasing water from Canton Lake in northwestern Oklahoma to help replenish Oklahoma City’s drinking water supply, an action criticized by a pair of state lawmakers who said siphoning off the lake’s water will harm western Oklahoma.
One of the lawmakers, Rep. Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher, said the water woes of Oklahoma’s largest city are the result of inadequate water management planning.
“Where is their water conservation plan? Lawns are still being watered in dead of winter. It makes no sense at all,” Sanders said.
About 30,000 acre-feet of water will be released from Canton Lake into the North Canadian River and eventually be captured by Lake Hefner in northwest Oklahoma City to replenish the drinking water supply that serves about 1.2 million people, said Debbie Ragan, spokesperson for the city’s utilities department. It will take about two weeks for the water to reach Lake Hefner.
“We put this release off as long as we could. Because we know there are implications for Lake Canton,” Ragan said.
The Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust owns the water rights to Canton Lake and has used it since the 1950s. Oklahoma City has experienced above average rainfall for decades and water releases were few, but drought conditions have caused the drinking water supply to shrink. Weather forecasters expect the drought to continue in 2013.
In spite of the additional water, Ragan said the release will have little impact on improving recreation at Lake Hefner, a popular venue for boating and other water activities.
“We do it when our drinking water is threatened. That’s the only reason we take releases from Lake Canton,” Ragan said.
Sanders and Sen. Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward, said they were disappointed by the city’s action and accused it of failing to adopt “a pro-active water conservation plan.”
“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 in a statement.
Marlatt said Canton Lake is western Oklahoma’s principal recreational lake and is used extensively for fishing for walleye, sand bass and catfish. The lake is also the walleye hatchery for the entire state, but the water release will seriously damage it, he said.
“I know it will be devastating — devastating not only to the lake but the Canton area’s economy,” Marlatt told The Associated Press. Tourists who visit the nearby city of Canton to boat and fish will stop coming, which will have an impact on restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations and cabin rentals, he said.
“Just because they have the right doesn’t mean that it’s morally right,” Marlatt said. “It’s not only about taking what’s rightfully yours, a lot of it is about being a good neighbor as well.”
Ragan said city officials have met with the corps and an advisory committee that monitors Lake Canton to determine what impact the water release will have.
“We know it’s going to have a negative impact. We regret that. We truly do,” she said. But additional supplies are needed to serve the drinking water needs of Oklahoma City and surrounding areas.
“We don’t know how long this drought’s going to last,” she said.
The city has already implemented a mandatory rotation program for watering lawns and more stringent conservation programs could be implemented as temperatures and water demand increase, Ragan said.
The water release will raise the level of Lake Hefner about 10 feet but the lake will still be seven feet below its normal pool elevation.
“We have boats that are stuck in the mud,” she said.