This ambitious water project includes the Altus Dam, Lake Altus (the reservoir for the project), 5 earthen dikes, 4 canals (Main, Altus, West and Ozark), and a 221-mile water distribution system with 26 miles of drains.
The project serves many purposes. According to the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) web site, the project provides "irrigation to about 48,000 acres of privately owned land in southwestern Oklahoma (through the Lugert-Altus Irrigation District). It gives flood control on the North Fork of the Red River, an augmented municipal water supply for the City of Altus, fish and wildlife conservation benefits, and recreation facilities."
When pioneers first arrived to our area, there were ponds and streams dotting the landscape, but when the sod was broken, those flowed back into the aquifers. Lack of water to our region long caused challenges for farmers, even before statehood.
So maybe it won't come as a surprise to some to learn that Lugert-Altus was not the first dam built by the City of Altus. The Ambursen Dam Company of New York City constructed a dam that was finished in 1927. Water provided by the Ambursen Dam provided the basis for Lugert-Altus Irrigation District. Though the dam was a good design, engineers forgot to calculate the amount of silt carried by the North Fork of the Red River. The storage area of then Lake Altus silted in and was reduced from 13,000 to 700 acre feet. Some of the construction was used when the new Lugert-Altus project was started.
The Ambursen Dam failed to supply enough water to area farmers since it silted in so fast. The dirty-thirties, or Dust Bowl time, forced people to see irrigated farming was a must in this area. Southwest Oklahoma needed a strong advocate and found one in state senator William C. Austin who dedicated years to efforts to secure a reliable water source for our region. From 1935 to 1938, Austin continued to campaign for a new dam at the Lugert site. Author Robert Autobee has written the history of W.C. Austin and his project. This history is detailed on the BOR web site.
Even after the Lugert-Altus project was planned, several events hampered efforts to bring it to fruition. Lack of materials and money after the Great Depression delayed completion and then came World War II.
But strangely, the Japanese attack on Hawaii played a part of the reason the Lugert-Altus project would finally be completed after the war. When most of the Pacific fleet was destroyed, the US was forced to change its military strategy. Aviation became the new weapon and we needed skilled pilots. In 1942 the US War Department decided to locate a multi-engine flight school here, which became Altus Army Air Field and eventually Altus Air Force Base. With all those people coming to Altus, the War Production Board (WPB) assigned the dam with a priority. But shortages of rubber made truck tires scarce and the draft made able-bodied laborers even more rare. The WPB issued a stop construction order for Lugert-Altus just 5 months after construction started, according to the BOR web site.
Then someone in Washington put it altogether. Lugert-Altus could help provide irrigation to the farmers to raise food and fiber needed for the war effort. They reclassified Lugert-Altus as a War Food Project, which help prevent delays on paper, but materials were still in short supply. This delayed the dam construction into the summer of 1945. Distribution systems were completed by 1949 and the canals and drains were done by 1953.
Meanwhile, the City of Altus sold its share of the dam to the BOR for $40,000, back in 1942. That sale, however, specified that we would have benefits and responsibilities concerning the project. The city will be financially responsible for 12.42% of the dam and reservoir expenses. In exchange, the city would have rights to water from the project. Now those responsibilities will come home to roost in 2 more years.
According to Stephenson, the BOR has been required to assess how the Lugert-Altus project would hold up in case of a flood. In the past, the BOR has used 100 year flood, or a 500 year flood, to assess dam efficiency. Now the government refers to a Probable Maximum Flood (PMF) as its standard reference. That means the greatest depth of precipitation for a storm that is possible for that area in that location. Things that help determine the depth are "soil type, land use, size and shape of the watershed and the watershed slope," according to Dam Safety: Probable Maximum Flood, published by the state of Ohio.
When using this new PMF standard, the BOR has found several deficiencies in the Lugert-Altus project, not with the dam itself, but with spillways and dikes. This is primarily because the dam was not built to the new specifications, since it was built back in the 1940's.
The City of Altus will have to share in the cost of repairing these structures, approximately 15%, according to the Federal Safety of Dams Act. The BOR will provide a list of the proposed changes to the project within 2 years. It's a fairly safe bet there's at least one person who'd say it's all worth it: W.C. Austin.