TULSA (AP) — The meandering Illinois River in northeastern Oklahoma has dropped to its lowest level in decades, and such activities as boating, fishing and swimming could be jeopardized without significant rainfall soon, an official said.
Ed Fite, an administrator with the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, said the river is about one-third the flow that it should be this time of year entering the extended Fourth of July holiday. In a near-repeat of last summer, drought conditions are expanding throughout Oklahoma, causing lower water levels at several area lakes and rivers, and some forecasters are predicting little relief in sight as the state enters the worst of the season.
“Conditions will be lower than we’re used to seeing until we get some appreciable rain,” Fite said in an interview Monday night. “We need to have a 25-year rain event where we get 2 inches of rainfall in a 24-hour period evenly dispersed along the basin. Right now, what water going into the Illinois River is being pulled out by the vegetation.”
Last July, Oklahoma had the country’s highest monthly average temperature of 89.1 degrees, according to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. And Grandfield claimed the record for having 101 days with 100-degree or higher heat, smashing the previous record, 86, set in 1956 in Hollis.
Last year, Oklahoma had experienced unusually dry, hot weather in the winter and spring, then summer brought regular triple-digit temperatures that fueled wildfires, prompted burn bans and led to water rationing in some communities.
Although conditions haven’t gotten that bad this year, and some parts of the state could see a chance of rain next week, “we’ve still got a lot of summer to go,” said Mike Teague, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tulsa.
“It needs to be abnormally wet for us to recover really quickly,” Teague said this week.
On Skiatook Lake, which was about 5 feet below normal levels, and others, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began alerting boaters to the potential hazards of the lower water.
“You’re going to be looking at lower lake levels, which creates a boating hazard as well,” said Ross Adkins, chief of the public affairs office for the corps of engineers’ Tulsa district. “Things that were down several feet below the surface are now popping up. We want people to be careful as the lakes go down further and further and not rip out the bottom of their boats.”
Near Grand Lake, which for now was showing normal levels mainly thanks to spring rains in the area, local merchants were hoping they could still attract plenty of holiday boaters and swimmers.
“We’re being optimistic,” said Michael Blackman, co-owner of Blue Water Bait & Tackle in Disney, which sells camping supplies. “They said if we don’t get rain in the next three days, a large part of Oklahoma is going to be in extremely high fire danger because we’ll be in drought conditions.
“That slows things down always,” Blackman said. “All we can do is hope (for rain).”
But Sam Williams, who owns the Grand Lake Sports Center in Grove, opted to keep a positive outlook on the conditions.
“Just use a little common sense, be safe and be courteous to others,” Williams said. “This is as good as it gets.”