OKLAHOMA CITY — The ongoing drought prompted Oklahoma City officials in January to begin diverting billions of gallons of water from Canton Lake to Lake Hefner, replenishing the drinking water supply for about 1.2 million people in the metro area.
Five months later, heavy rainfall that accompanied severe storms and tornadoes that pummeled the state in May have filled Lake Hefner to the brim, forcing officials to drain water from the lake to prevent it from overflowing. Meanwhile, about 100 miles northwest, Canton Lake remains 13 feet below its normal level, and officials who oversee its condition are concerned it may never recover.
"I think the lake is dying," said Jeff Converse, president of the Canton Lake Association. "The low water level is one thing, but now we've got an algae bloom going on. It's pea-green soup."
Converse said he saw dead fish last weekend and believes conditions in the lake will only get worse as the summer heats up.
Residents and merchants say they believe Oklahoma City acted hastily to drain Canton Lake — one of six water reservoirs it controls — of 30,000 acre-feet, or almost 9.8 billion gallons, of water before spring rains brought up Lake Hefner's low levels. An acre foot of water is an acre of surface area with a depth of one foot.
"If they would have waited we would all be in better shape," said Alan Cox, a member of the board of Canton Lake Association who operates a restaurant near the lake. "I think it wasn't a very smart decision on their part. I don't know why a month or two wouldn't have helped."
A spokeswoman for the city's water utility, Debbie Ragan, said officials decided to tap into Canton Lake based on forecasts that indicated serious consequences without additional water sources.
"Wish we had a crystal ball at the time? Yes," Ragan said. "We did what we thought was best at the time for our customers. We can't predict the weather. We can't predict the future. We can take some steps to be better prepared."
Greg Estep, chief of hydrology and hydraulics for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Tulsa District, said the Corps has voiced concern about what impact draining water from Canton Lake might have.
"We still have some concerns out there," Estep said. "They had to do what seemed best for their citizens."
Water released from Canton Lake flowed along the North Canadian River and was diverted into Lake Hefner, which received more than 20,000 acre-feet of water. The balance was soaked up by the riverbed.
Because of the heavy rainfall last month, Ragan said more than 23,000 acre-feet of water was released from Lake Hefner early this month into Lake Overholser and ultimately back into the North Canadian River.
"Those two lakes couldn't hold the water. They're full," she said.
Estep said the prospects for Canton Lake being replenished by rainfall are not good. The region normally gets about 20 inches of rain a year, but recent rainfall adds up to only about 12 inches a year.
"We need some rain," he said. "We need it to come down hard enough that it exceeds the amount that is soaking in."
Cox and other area merchants said the low level of Canton Lake is keeping away anglers, campers and others who use it for recreation.
"It's been pretty tough on all of us," Cox said. "We're about out of our rainy season. Who knows what the weather is going to bring. But it's not looking good."
Donnie Jenkins, who operates Canton Motel, said only six of the motel's 20 rooms were occupied for last month's Canton Lake Walleye Rodeo — the state's oldest and traditionally largest fishing tournament. Ordinarily, Jenkins said, the motel would be full.
"We had one guy who stayed that was a fisherman this weekend," Jenkins said Monday. "We're down 90 percent on weekends."
Jenkins said low lake levels are decimating the lake's fish population.
"We've lost lots and lots and lots of walleye," he said. "It might kill all the fish. It's a sad, sad deal."
Carol Gilchrist, operator of This and That gift shop, says the lake is also vital to the area's economic health.
"This town depends on the lake to get us through the winter," she said. "We have lost so many of the campers due to the lake situation. We're going to have to tighten our belts."