Heat hurting farmers, water supply

Thursday, August 24th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Fred Wyatt and his fellow southern Oklahoma farmers felt fortunate when June turned out to be wetter and cooler than normal.

Now that milo harvests are only producing 15 bushels instead of the typical 60 bushels, and drying ponds are forcing some farmers to sell their cow herds, the mood has drastically shifted, Wyatt said.

"There are a lot of farmers who are kind of down," said Wyatt, a farmer-rancher from Hollister. "They're not putting out fertilizer and it's going to be time to plant wheat in 30 days."

The extreme heat and dry conditions not only have affected summer crops such as cotton, peanuts and milo, but water supplies for cities and towns.

Gov. Frank Keating cited the deteriorating conditions Wednesday in expanding a ban on outdoor burning to all but six Oklahoma counties. Only Cimarron, Craig, Delaware, Mayes, Ottawa and Rogers counties are exempt.

"While it is hardly a shock that Oklahoma has been suffering through a drought and extreme heat, it is important to stress that our citizens must practice caution and guard against the possibility of wildfires," Keating said.

The ban prohibits setting fires in forests and grasslands, building campfires or bonfires or burning trash. The ban allows charcoal cooking on a grill.

No relief is expected soon. The latest five-day forecast calls for a chance of thunderstorms in southeastern Oklahoma and in the Panhandle. But the rest of the state will see temperatures into the 90s and low 100s and no rain chances.

According to reporting stations around Oklahoma, temperatures reached or surpassed 100 on 18 days in July and have done so on 22 days in August so far, said Howard Johnson, associate state climatologist for the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.

The highest temperature reported in July and August has been 108 in Walters, Johnson said.

Officials won't be able to tell until the end of the summer how hot the summer of 2000 was, but "I got a feeling it will rate pretty high," Johnson said.

According to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, four areas of the state are classified as being in a drought. The south-central and southeastern climate divisions are seeing moderate drought, while the southwestern and northwestern divisions are in a mild drought, said Brian Vance, an environmental specialist and hydrologist for the Water Resources Board.

Central and east-central Oklahoma divisions are on the verge of drought, Vance said.

"Ironically, Oklahoma generally has been an island in the middle of an ocean of drought for much of the summer," Vance said, referring to this year's drought in the southern United States.

"But really, within the last three or four years, drought has really been nearing the rule more than the exception, especially this time of year."

The worst drought to hit since the Great Depression caused millions of dollars in losses for farmers beginning in late 1995 and stretching into 1996. Another less severe drought occurred in 1998, which was the seventh-hottest summer on record in Oklahoma, Johnson said.

"The good news is we're entering the end of August and getting into September," Vance said. "You would anticipate, maybe in the next two weeks, the high pressure system will weaken a little bit and get some low pressure kicking off some rainshowers."

The rain would help El Reno, where residents are under mandatory water rationing, City Manager Orvel Gibson said.

Officials can only treat about 4 million gallons of water a day, including filtering the water and the use of chemicals, Gibson said. Once that amount is exceeded, the water is treated with chemicals but not run through a filtering system, which can run afoul of standards set by the Department of Environmental Quality.

Improvements that will allow the city to treat 6 million gallons of water a day, and therefore eliminate the need for annual rationing, should be completed in about 15 months, Gibson said.

Wilburton officials had to take a more drastic and faster route to solving their water supply problem.

The level of usable water in Lloyd Church Lake, which supplies the town and much of Latimer County, has dropped to about 23 feet, Mayor Danny Baldwin said. The deepest part of the lake was about 40 feet, Baldwin said.

"It's been declining since January or February," Baldwin said Wednesday. "We were hoping spring rains would take care of us and that didn't happen."

Baldwin said the water supply is down to about 200 days.

As a result, residents in Wilburton and in surrounding communities that rely on water from the town are barred from outside watering, except for livestock and domestic animals.

BP, a petroleum company, is helping the city with a $100,000 grant that will build a 2-inch water line to pipe water into the area from an old reservoir the city once used, Baldwin said.

Keating has signed an emergency declaration that will expedite a request for $100,000 in matching funds from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, and the city of Wilburton will provide the rest of the funding for the $236,000 project, Baldwin said.

Officials expect the project to be completed in about 21/2 weeks.

Afterward, Wilburton will use the old reservoir permanently and rely on Lloyd Church Lake as a reserve, Baldwin said.

"This wouldn't be possible were it not for the community coming together to help out and several companies furnishing equipment and money to get the line laid."