Canton, Oklahoma — population 625 — is a town on the brink. Canton relies on lake season, and lake season never really got started this year.
At the first of the year, Oklahoma City took water from Canton Lake to meet demand at the height of the drought. While that decision kept faucets flowing in the metro, it threatens the very existence of Canton the community.
Ron Chapdelaine owns Canton Foods, the only grocery store in town.
“We’re basically just trying to survive until better days with the lake coming back,” says Ron Chapdelaine, owner of the only grocery store in town. “You make your money in the summertime to survive the wintertime. The population doubles in the summertime, so it’s 50 percent of our business.”
The population doubles because of outdoor tourism. Jeff Converse, who lives in Woodward but owns a trailer on Canton Lake, says this year wasn’t the first time Oklahoma City used the lake’s water, but it was the worst time.
“That was what I call the ‘kill shot’ release, because this is the one that took the lake level to the point where it made the lake unusable,” Converse says.
Few Options for Anyone
This was Alan Cox’s 20th year running the Overlook Café just off the dam near where the shoreline used to be. He says business has been horrible. Usually he closes up at the end of October, but not this year.
“I closed in September, because there just wasn’t nothing. You know, there was no business,” Cox says.
He helps organize the annual Walleye Rodeo fishing derby, the town’s biggest even. But this year’s was a dud.
“We usually register 1,200 or so fishermen. I think we registered 200 and some. I run the store here, and my business was down 70 percent this summer,” Cox says.
It’s not the Walleye Rodeo that concerns Oklahoma City Utilities Director Marsha Slaughter. She’s worried about making sure there’s enough water for hundreds of thousands of people.
“The water supply was built for municipal and industrial purposes, and we’re the holder of that use,” Slaughter says. “So while we attempt to in no way disturb Lake Canton when we don’t have to, I really believed we were in a ‘have to’ situation. Lake Hefner was lower than we had seen it since 1978.”
So, Oklahoma City started sending water to Lake Hefner, down the North Canadian River, a decision Jeff Converse says was made too quickly.
“We were just requesting, ‘hey, wait and see what spring rains bring.’ And what did spring rains bring? A historic flood for Oklahoma City in May,” Converse says.
Can Canton Recover?
But what’s done is done. There’s no giving the water back. The question now is how long it will take for Canton Lake to recover, and whether the town can hang on until it does.
Converse thinks it could be a decade before Canton Lake recovers from Oklahoma City’s latest withdrawal. Grocery store owner Ron Chapdelaine says that would put him out of business.
“I don’t think we’ll have a grocery store if ten years from now our lake’s not back up. I don’t think we could survive for ten years,” Chapdelaine says.
Two doors down on Main Street, Angie Brodrick knows the same is true for the Gilchrist General Store she manages.
“We will be closed. And I would say most of this town will be closed,” Brodrick says.