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Oklahoma City requests water from Canton Lake for the second time this year

A photograph of water flowing through a dam gate into a pool and then a  river. The landscape around it looks dry and wintry. Taken looking down at the gate from on top of the dam.
Oklahoma-Texas Water Center
U.S. Geological Survey
Before this year, Oklahoma City hadn't requested water from Canton since 2013, when this photo was taken.

The Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust is drawing water from Canton Lake this week to increase water levels in Lake Hefner. Before this summer, the city hadn’t resorted to taking water from Canton since 2013. Now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is sending water down the North Canadian River for the second time in three months.

Even after getting water from Canton in August, Lake Hefner currently sits almost 7 feet lower than normal due to the state’s ongoing drought. With water levels 3.35 feet below normal, Canton Lake is faring a bit better, but it’s still parched.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to release water from Canton Lake on Oct. 17. According to a news release from the City of Oklahoma City, the water takes 3 to 5 days to arrive in Lake Hefner.

“By the end of the week, we'll start seeing it,” said Michelann Ooten, the Oklahoma City Utilities Department’s spokesperson. But she said it could take up to two weeks for all the water to reach Lake Hefner.

There are no pipes to carry that water to its destination in northwest Oklahoma City. Instead, the water from Canton Lake will meander through more than 100 miles of the North Canadian River and then a canal before reaching Lake Hefner.

The Corps of Engineers will release 4.2 billion gallons of water into the river. City officials said they expect Canton Lake to drop by 2 feet and Lake Hefner to rise by about 1.75 feet. But Canton’s surface area is more than three times larger than Hefner’s. This means they expect more than 70% of the water released from Canton Lake to evaporate or soak into the riverbed before it reaches Lake Hefner.

But Ooten says some of that water loss would happen anyway. “Even the lake loses water through evaporation,” Ooten said. “Especially during the drought. That's why we’ve come to this situation of needing to do a release from Canton.”

Graycen Wheeler
After the release in August, the water stored in Canton's reservoir dropped but the levels at Hefner stabilized. The vertical dashed line shows the beginning of the water release on Aug. 11. Dotted lines project water storage according to trends from the beginning of the month. Data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey.

When Oklahoma City pulled water from Canton Lake in August, it wasn’t a seamless process. The water release was scheduled to start on Aug. 3 and last around two weeks, but it stopped after less than two days.

The August water release was steeped in public concern, and many of the personnel involved in the release were new to the process since it last happened in 2013, according to a press release from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Tulsa District. In response, the draw was paused, an advisory committee met and the City of Oklahoma City resubmitted its withdrawal request.

On Aug. 11, the Oklahoma City government resumed its withdrawal from Canton Lake, pulling about 4.2 billion gallons — twice as much water as they had planned for the original Aug. 3 release.

“We don't take it lightly,” Ooten said. “It's very serious. We certainly want to limit where possible the impact of these decisions on Canton, as well as balance out the need for water in Central Oklahoma.”

After Oklahoma City drew water from it in 2013, Canton Lake dropped 13 feet below its normal level, developed an algae bloom and lost 90% of its tourism, according to reporting by the Enid News & Eagle from June of that year. That summer, Oklahoma City received so much rain that it had to release excess water into the North Canadian River to prevent flooding. Ultimately, the city released more water than it had received from Canton Lake just months earlier.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns and operates Canton Lake. Oklahoma City retains rights to water stored in the lake by paying the Corps of Engineers about a quarter of the operating costs.

Oklahoma City also draws water from the Atoka and McGee Creek Reservoirs in the southeastern part of the state.

The water from these reservoirs also travels about 100 miles before reaching Lake Stanley Draper in southwest Oklahoma City. But it flows through a pipeline rather than a river, so a larger fraction of the water reaches its destination. Oklahoma City installed the original pipeline in 1962. Last year, the city budgeted for an even wider pipeline to run alongside the first, in a project that’s expected to cost $800 million.

City of Oklahoma City 2021 Water Quality Report
Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust
In addition to releasing water down the North Canadian River from Canton Lake, Oklahoma City is able to pull water through a pipe from the Atoka and McGee Reservoirs in southeastern Oklahoma.

That’s because the Oklahoma City Water Trust needs water for 1.4 million central Oklahomans, who consume about 100 million gallons each day. While the city doesn’t have any special water restrictions in place for the current drought, residents are always asked to adhere to odd/even watering schedules.

Ooten said that Hefner’s low water levels are because of the drought, not irresponsible water use in Oklahoma City. Still, she encourages residents to visit squeezeeverydrop.com, the city’s website about water conservation.

“We truly want to get every use we can have a drop of water,” she said. “Because we do want to be responsible water conservationists as customers for the City of Oklahoma City.”


Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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