Optima Lake – Oklahoma’s Forbidden Body of Water
One of the lessons Oklahoma took away from the devastation of the Dust Bowl was just how important water was to the Sooner State. Not just in the aspect of having water, but more importantly controlling our waters.
We've talked before about how Oklahoma is a state without a single natural lake. Literally, every single lake in the state has been manmade, and for good reason.
Oklahoma is a land of lakes. Always has been since the first people stepped foot here. Two of the five major Mississippi River tributaries flow through the Sooner State along with more than 500 other naturally flowing bodies of water.
When Oklahoma does finally get those much-needed big rains, it causes the opposite of a dust bowl... It creates a mud plain. Rivers tend to spill their banks and flood the lands surrounding them. Most Okies don't think about flood risks much these days because we managed to manage our water through dams, of which Oklahoma has the most dammed reservoirs in the nation.
In addition to controlling potential flood waters, there's a major benefit to having a massive reserve of water in any community... Whether it's for drinking or irrigation, water remains a key to all life.
While the dams of Texoma, Eufala, Grand Lake 'o the Cherokee's, and Keystone get all of the attention, there's one dam project that never met expectations...
Back in the 1970s, Oklahoma was rolling on a successful trend of damming up any river they could. Reservoirs filled up across the state, flooding quickly became a rare thing, and it was an overall huge success until they tried it in the panhandle.
While the state included a reservoir in the grand expanse of Texas County, Oklahoma in the Flood Control Act of 1934, it took the state forty years to start the project.
The North Canadian River exhibited the same traits as most rivers, in that it occasionally flooded its banks. Damming up Optima Lake was a no-brainer... but rivers tend to change with time.
When they entered the construction phase of this reservoir, the North Canadian was still averaging a healthy flow of water. This was in the late-60s. By the time they completed the project in 1978, that flow was less than a quarter of what it was twelve years earlier.
Most place the blame at the feet of farmers. Popularity and farm profits swelled in the 1950s and 60s after the discovery of the Ogallala Aquifer groundwater source. Irrigation around that same time swung from windmill and flood irrigation practices to center pivot irrigation. (those long pipe sprinklers you see in fields across the country)
As the water was pumped out of the ground, less was available on the surface to flow. Here's what it looks like now... If you look closely enough, you can see the tiny spec of water along the dam.
The $46million Optima Lake reservoir never was.
While it was managed for a bit as an outdoor destination complete with camping and hiking, it has been mostly abandoned.
While age is the real killer of everything, a supreme lack of maintenance and the occasional fire really put a damper on this place. It's gotten to the point where people can still visit Optima, but you'll be in for a long walk to experience it.
While the reservoir never filled, there is occasionally a little water in the deepest parts of the bowl, but it remains mostly dry year-round.
There is no fishing, boating, or swimming allowed at Optima Lake, obviously due to the lack of water... and the state has also forbidden all camping too, but some people still get a little use from the failed project.
There are over 3,000 acres of public land around the "lake" that is available for use by hunters each year in addition to almost 5,000 acres of national wildlife refuge.
Those who visit enjoy a rather unique experience, and those who were close to the project overwhelmingly resent how easy it was for the state to abandon it.
If you ever find yourself in the middle of No Man's Land, it's worth dropping by just to say you've been there.