Some areas of Southwest Oklahoma received more than 5 inches of rainfall last week, raising water levels at Lake Tom Steed Reservoir and Lake Lugert-Altus. Tom Steed jumped from a shallow 24.7 percent to a measurable 27.2 percent and Lugert-Altus rose from 10.6 percent to 11.2 as of Friday, May 30, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
Although the rain had a positive impact, Southwest Oklahoma still endures a drought that has caused the region’s water supply to slowly dwindle and has also halted local agriculture production.
The Bureau of Reclamation predicts that Lake Tom Steed will be dry by August 2021 if rain events continue inflowing into the reservoir as they have for the past three years. If there are no inflow events at all, Tom Steed will dry up by November 2016.
As water conservation efforts have markedly extended the life of both watersheds and provides more time for the City of Altus and other agencies to begin developing alternative water sources, still one question is often asked:
“Will Altus run out of water before more arrives?”
Supply and Demand
Almost all of the water supplied to the region springs from two main sources: Lake Tom Steed and Lake Lugert-Altus. The Cities of Altus, Frederick, Snyder, and Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area, draw from Lake Tom Steed, which is managed by the Mountain Park Master Conservancy District. Jackson County crop irrigators and the City of Altus receive water from Lake Lugert-Altus, which is managed by the Lugert-Altus Irrigation District.
On the municipal level, the City of Altus treats water from both lakes at the Altus Water Treatment Plant for its customers throughout Altus, Altus Air Force Base, Duke, Olustee, and the Creta Rural Water System. The nearby town of Blair has the ability to purchase water from Altus, but currently they utilize their own water wells.
According to recent data provided by the City of Altus Water Department, the City of Altus and it’s customers used an average 5.5 million gallons of water per day (MGD) both during 2011 and 2012 under normal, non-drought conditions.
With the absence of significant rainfalls, receding lake levels eventually brought about the first actions to preserve the areas water supply. The City of Altus responded by implementing Stage 2 - Mandatory Water Restriction in early March 2013. By that time Lake Tom Steed was at 36 percent full. The City moved to Stage 3 - Drought Warning the following month restricting residents to one day per week at specified times for outside watering. As a result, Altus customers reduced their water use to an average 3.8 MGD both for 2013 and so far 2014.
A discussion was held at the May 6, 2014, City Council meeting about going to Stage 4 - Drought Emergency, but no motion was made. Altus remains at Stage 3.
Additionally, Mountain Park Master Conservancy District (MPMCD) and Lugert-Altus Irrigation District now transmit a far less amount of water due to their customers conservation measures.
MPMCD Manager Will Archer reported an average 37 percent delivery of total allocation (5,957 ac.ft.) in 2013-14 to Altus, Frederick, and Snyder combined. Hackberry Flat WMA has abstained from taking any water since 2013. Archer attributed conservation as one of the most effective practices having a direct correlation to the remaining water supply.
“Go look at the lake,” Archer said in a recent City Council meeting. “What we have in there is water we conserved. Water conservation does work.” Archer said that increased conservation will add more time to the life of Lake Tom Steed.
Lugert-Altus Irrigation District Manager Tom Buchanan has reported that less than 20 percent of water was sent to fill the Altus Reservoir for its emergency reserve. They haven’t delivered any water to farmers since the drought began.
Ground Water Development
Beyond water restriction, the City of Altus has pursued a number of options for developing alternative water sources. In July of last year the City of Altus entered into a contract with Freese and Nichols, Inc., to evaluate Round Timber Water Well field, located just south of the Red River in Texas, for water yield and quality. They presented their results to the City Council in November 2013 and estimated a yield of 1.2 million (MGD) annually based off of past well performance.
Freese and Nichols representative Kevin Spencer stated that 79 percent of production comes from recharge based on average rainfall, stating the aquifer has “poor drought resistance.” Spencer warned that without rain over a 10 year period, 50 percent of the water storage would be used up at 1.2 MGD. “That’s a severe limitation for this property, and I just want you to be aware of that,” Spencer said.
Moving forward, this past January the City Council voted to obtain professional engineering services to draft a report in order to begin the process of rehabilitating an existing booster station and storage tank located on the Round Timber Ranch. Engineering service also included the adjacent Holloway Well field. Meanwhile, the City of Altus continued in a litigation process over water price at Round Timber Ranch as mentioned in a City Council meeting in January.
Council also voted to to obtain an engineer to draft an engineering report in order to construct a 12” water line from the Altus Water Treatment Plant to the intersection of US 283 and ECR 1750 as recommended by Freese and Nichols. The line would allow for blending ground water from Round Timber Well Field and surface water with an existing 18” water line at the Treatment Plant. It would also reduce the need to put a treatment plant at the Round Timber Water Well Field.
In April, Council voted to have engineering service, Fox, Drechsler, and Brickley, Inc., to begin rehabilitation on two existing wells and construct two new wells at the Holloway Well Field. Together they are expected to to produce 700,000 gallons per day. Council voted to fund $575,000 toward the $673,000 project during this fiscal year.
According to engineer Gary Brickley they hope to have that project completed within the next 120 days.
“The scope work has been defined, and as long as we stay within the defined parameters we’ll be moving ahead with the project,” Brickley said during an interview. “We were trying to have construction begin within 90 days.” The initial phase to rehab the existing wells could take 30 days.
Another promising source of ground water may come from the Mountain Park Master Conservancy District, who is currently requesting permits from the Bureau of Reclamation to begin drilling test wells before constructing three or four new wells. MPMCD Manager Will Archer said they are also looking into grants for funding the project. Optimally those wells could yield a combined 5 MGD to provide to their customers.
Southwest Oklahoma Water Action Plan
In addition to securing ground water, the City of Altus entered into a contract with Duane Smith and Associates, of Oklahoma City, to produce a Southwest Oklahoma Water Action Plan. On May 20, Smith returned with a draft report and emphasized that Lake Tom Steed was the key component for long-term water supply and drought management.
“When we go from this point out on talking about our Water Action Plan, it’s about adding ground water supplies that are going to extend the life and take pressure off of Tom Steed,” Smith said. “For the reliable water supply for us here in Southwest Oklahoma, it’s going to be a combination of Tom Steed reservoir and ground water supplies to supplement that.”
Smith presented “near term” strategies for the next 2 years, some already aligned with current actions taken by the City of Altus. They included water conservation and developing ground water well sources, and also appointing members to a Southwest Oklahoma Water Supply Action Plan Committee to periodically look at and update the action plan as well as educate the public on drought management. Smith also recommended mapping out other minor aquifers throughout the region and testing them for quality and quantity.
Other strategies included widening existing canals that flow into Lake Tom Steed to capture more water during rain events, utilizing non-potable water in public areas like parks and golf courses, analysis of connecting with other region-wide water distribution systems or districts, getting the Altus Reverse Osmosis Plant back online, rehabilitation of the City of Altus reservoir to hold more water, and finding other uses of grey water. Major water conveyance systems were considered but Smith deemed them as the least feasible option when comparing millions to billions in project costs.
Water Conveyance Systems
At the end of April, the Altus City Council signed a “Letter of Interest” for a Texas-Oklahoma water pipeline after receiving a presentation from engineering firm Guernsey of Oklahoma City.
Guernsey Senior Consultant, Larry Roach, outlined their “Drought Proof Water concept water conveyance system” to construct a 100 mile, 90” pipeline from the Ogallala Aquifer out of the Texas Panhandle into Oklahoma, passing through Altus, back into Texas, to Vernon, and ending in Wichita Falls.
Roach stated there is a 250 year supply of quality water that won’t require treatment or a pumping system. The line would move 200 million gallons per day.
“Obviously this is subject to you potential clients and that’s why we are bringing it forward,” Roach stated. Later Roach said that the feasibility of the project will all depend on how many thousands of gallons people will commit to.
“The more we can get people to commit for, the less per thousand gallons [it will be] and the more attractive the whole project looks to everybody,” Roach said.
The “letter of interest” helps Guernsey identify all the potential “partners” who might later meet and determine the percentage each partner would pay to perform a feasibility study. The feasibility study may cost as much as $900,000 and take 6 to 9 months to perform, with water delivery in 4 to 5 years. Cost per 1000 gallons will then be determined in the study.
The Ticking Clock
According to new data, the Bureau of Reclamation predicts that Lake Tom Steed will be completely dry by November 2016 if there are no significant inflow events under current conservation efforts.
Matt Warren, Supervisor with the Bureau of Reclamation said that the drought prediction of November, 2016, is a “no rain” scenario. However, if inflow trends continue as they have in the past three years, Lake Tom Steed will last until August 2021.
“You’ve got to count evaporation, the deliveries, and the inflows,” Warren said. “You’ve got to count all of them together to run these rough estimates of what the reservoir is going to do.”
Warren said that in 2009 when their office updated their water yield information to reflect current data of all seven reservoirs under their jurisdiction, he built a “fairly handy tool” that gave the ability to do some “what-if scenarios.” The model is based on the last three years of rainfall inflow, base inflows, delivery to customers, and the amount of evaporation.
Evaporation can wreak havoc on lake storage stealing anywhere from 1000 to 6000 acred feet a month. In 2013 Lake Tom Steed lost 11,000 ac.ft. from evaporation, Warren said. They also delivered 6,700 ac.ft. to customers. Tom Steed would completely dry without receiving an inflow of 19,000 ac. feet last year.
Warren also noted that the effects of evaporation become less as water volume decreases. Currently the reservoir holds 26,444 ac.ft. and is 27.2 percent full.
Warren also said that rainfall can have an impressive impact on water levels and described their reservoirs across the state as being “flashy” and having the ability to “fill up in one good rain event.”
“If we get that event, were good,” Warren said. “It has to be sizeable storm, but it’s definitely happened in the past.”
State Climatologist Gary McManus of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey said “there’s good news.”
“The good news is that something has changed and we have an el nino,” McManus said in a phone interview of Friday, May 30. “Climate forecasters are almost certain it’s going to develop this summer and then last through next winter.”
McManus explained that of the different oceanic wind systems that correlate with Oklahoma’s history of drought, the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) system varies every 1-3 years, contrasting periods of cool/wet weather (La Nino) with periods of hot/dry weather (La Nina).
The La Nino is expected to bring cooler and wetter weather through October to April 2015, however wont have any impact on drought conditions this spring and summer, McManus said.
“Even if we have a bad rest of the spring and a tough summer, at least we have some hope coming up next fall through the early spring season that we might get some pretty good rains in here,” McManus said. “Historically strong el nino’s have given Oklahoma really good rainfall through that period.”
Even more exciting news, McManus said that climate forecasters are saying it resembles the “super el nino” seen in 1997-98 which resulted in one of Oklahoma’s wettest time periods on record.
“If it would happen to be a very strong el nino it probably would be good news for us. It goes a long way toward getting out of drought,” said McManus, noting that the region is short about 40-50 inches of rain over the past few years.
McManus said that drought conditions will continue into the summer unless there is a miraculous 20 inches of rainfall in the next 2 or 3 weeks. “Once summer hits we will get very little rain fall and lots of hot weather, lots of evaporation, and drought intensifying in the summer months.
McManus said it is difficult to predict exactly what is going to happen but he has high hopes for the developing el nino.
“If that does occur I think we might see, if not an end to the drought, at least a brief respite, and maybe get a year or two of above normal rainfall for a change,” McManus said. “After that occurs we’ll just have to wait to see what happens.”