Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Pictures From The Missing Lake



The Name Was Born of The Buoyant Confidence of Squatters Who Scratched Out a Place in The High Plains of No Man’s Land. A cluster of homes was built in 1886, before land ownership was allowed in the area, west of the Cherokee Outlet.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Yet its founders hoped for the best. They called their town Optima, from the Latin for best possible result. The town inspired the name of nearby Optima Lake. On a map of the Oklahoma Panhandle, the lake beckons – a crescent-shaped splash of blue in eastern Texas County.

In reality, the lake barely exists at all.

Conceived as an FDR-era New Deal project, the lake and dam were authorized by U.S. Congress as part of the Flood Control Act of 1936, part of a master plan to control the cycles of drought and dust in the American West. The design called for four projects on the North Canadian River: reservoirs at Optima, Fort Supply and Canton, and the construction of the Oklahoma City Floodway. Three were built. The Optima project stalled.

It would take 30 years of planning and lobbying to win enough allies to fund the project. Supporters waxed on with Panglossian pluck, insisting that a dam and reservoir would transform the semi-arid rangeland into an oasis on the Plains, a jewel in the crown of Oklahoma’s collection of more than 200 man-made lakes.

Though original designs had outlined an earthen dam 65 feet tall and 4,200 feet long, it was decided that would not be large enough. Revised plans called for a dam 85 feet high and 10,800 feet long, expanded not only to include farm irrigation, flood control and a drinking-water supply, but to create a center for recreation and a source for hydroelectricity. A brochure from the Guymon Chamber of Commerce promoting the project told of the reservoir that would be created: up to 100 feet deep, backing up 10 miles on the Beaver River and nine miles on Coldwater Creek. There would be water skiing. Fishing. Speed-boat racing. And tourists, lots of tourists.

So in 1966, 30 years after its first approval, construction began. By the time the project was completed 12 years later, the dam would stand 120 feet high and nearly three miles long. Total cost: $46.1 million.

Yet despite its massive size, despite the civic will of regional businesses, despite the political muscle of U.S. Senator Robert S. Kerr and U.S. Speaker of the House Carl Albert, despite the very optimism that conjured the dam into being, the mammoth project failed.

The reason is simple. The water supply dried up, and the reservoir never filled.

The source of the lake was to be the Beaver River, known downstream as the North Canadian. As the 20th century progressed, the river slowed to a trickle as levels dropped in the Ogallala Aquifer, the water table beneath Oklahoma and parts of seven other Western states. In 50 years, demand for water increased 25-fold, mostly due to expanded irrigation. Since the 1950s, the Ogallala has lost an estimated 11 percent of its volume. There would not be enough to create an oasis after all.

During the first full year of operation, in 1979, the Corps declared, “the optimum visitation for the project is 600,000 annual visitors and will be reached in 2014.”

But just as the flow of water was miscalculated, so was the stream of visitors. Somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 people a year now make the trek.

As the dream of Optima crumbled and budget cuts kicked in, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ended onsite operations in 1995. All services have since been cut off. The Corps of Engineers conceded in a 2010 report: “The authorized purposes that Optima Lake was built for have never been fully realized.”

Today, the grounds feel post-apocalyptic, dotted with remnants of a lost civilization. Bullet-riddled signs announce the Optima Dam and surrounding National Wildlife Refuge. The outbuildings have been torn down for safety’s sake, leaving little more than long dirt roads and disintegrating asphalt. Concrete picnic tables squat heavily on large slabs installed atop the parched biscuit-colored plain. Some tables get intermittent shade from contorted trees, gnarled and twisted by the wind. Desert grasses cleave long cracks through acres of parking lot pavement, checker-boarding through hundreds of empty spots for the tourists who never came.

A massive boat launch with ribbed ramp leads down what would have been the bottom of the lake. At the end of the ramp, a long dirt road snakes away, tall grasses bristling between the two tracks. Towering above the plain, the desolate dam bakes in the sun.

As the federal government and local groups discuss what should happen next, yucca and hardy wildflowers spread out among the buffalo grass. Prairie dogs scurry among the fields. Quail and pheasant, deer and turkey thrive beneath skies that are a flyway for migratory birds.

As they ponder, the land is returning to its natural state.

And that may, in the end, be the best possible result.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Editor’s Note: This is the 20th installment in a continuing series as author and photographer M.J. Alexander chronicles her travels across the state of Oklahoma.

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Archive »You Might Like

New Orleans Bound: Heading Down to the Big Easy

Steamboats to street musicians, incredible food and a perennial party atmosphere – the Crescent City is a prime destination year-round.

Off to See the Wizard in the Myriad Gardens

In her ongoing travels through Oklahoma, author and photographer M.J. Alexander goes over the rainbow to OKC for a screening

Culinary Cruises: Haute Cuisine on the High Seas

To find new heights of delicious refinement, head to sea and explore the improved dining possibilities on luxury cruises.

Add your comment:
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

March 2019

Through March 2019, Oklahoma Contemporary is partnering with Madison Square Park Conservancy to bring Erwin Redl’s installation Whiteout to Campbell Art Park. Whiteout is comprised of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Campbell Art Park
NW 11th and Broadway
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.951.0000
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
Website »

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

Brace yourself; The End Is Coming. Oklahoma popstress Layers of Pink is taking the show across the United States in light of her debut release, "The End Is Coming" EP. Come see (and hear)...

Cost: $5

Where:
Blue Note Lounge
2408 N Robinson Avenue
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
View map »


Sponsor: Layers of Pink
Telephone: 405.837.7455
Contact Name: Dustin Fox
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Through March 2019, Oklahoma Contemporary is partnering with Madison Square Park Conservancy to bring Erwin Redl’s installation Whiteout to Campbell Art Park. Whiteout is comprised of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Campbell Art Park
NW 11th and Broadway
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.951.0000
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
Website »

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Through March 2019, Oklahoma Contemporary is partnering with Madison Square Park Conservancy to bring Erwin Redl’s installation Whiteout to Campbell Art Park. Whiteout is comprised of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Campbell Art Park
NW 11th and Broadway
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.951.0000
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
Website »

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

The OSU Symphony Orchestra presents Smitten with Britain. In honour of Queen Victoria's 200th birthday, the OSUSO will perform Walton's Crown Imperial Coronation March, Elgar's Severn...

Cost: General Admission: $10; Students & Seniors: $7

Where:
Seretean Center for the Performing Arts
132 Seretean Ctr
Stillwater, OK  74078
View map »


Sponsor: OSU Symphony Orchestra
Telephone: 405.744.6133
Contact Name: Dr. Thomas Dickey, Director of Orchestral Studies
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Through March 2019, Oklahoma Contemporary is partnering with Madison Square Park Conservancy to bring Erwin Redl’s installation Whiteout to Campbell Art Park. Whiteout is comprised of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Campbell Art Park
NW 11th and Broadway
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.951.0000
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
Website »

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Through March 2019, Oklahoma Contemporary is partnering with Madison Square Park Conservancy to bring Erwin Redl’s installation Whiteout to Campbell Art Park. Whiteout is comprised of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Campbell Art Park
NW 11th and Broadway
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.951.0000
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
Website »

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Through March 2019, Oklahoma Contemporary is partnering with Madison Square Park Conservancy to bring Erwin Redl’s installation Whiteout to Campbell Art Park. Whiteout is comprised of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Campbell Art Park
NW 11th and Broadway
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.951.0000
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
Website »

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Through March 2019, Oklahoma Contemporary is partnering with Madison Square Park Conservancy to bring Erwin Redl’s installation Whiteout to Campbell Art Park. Whiteout is comprised of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Campbell Art Park
NW 11th and Broadway
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.951.0000
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
Website »

More information

Walk MS: Oklahoma City is an annual walk event held every spring to raise funds and awareness for Multiple Sclerosis. The walk has a 1-mile and 3-mile option for participants to choose from, with...

Cost: Free

Where:
Route 66 Park
9901 NW 23rd St
Suite A
Yukon, OK  73099
View map »


Sponsor: National Multiple Sclerosis Society
Telephone: 918.770.7263
Contact Name: Ashton Yancey
Website »

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

Join us at the Orr Family Farm for a special day of princesses and super heroes! Event attendees are encouraged to participate by wearing their favorite super hero or princess costume. You...

Cost: 11.50

Where:
Orr Family Farm
14400 S. Western Ave.
Oklahoma City, OK  73170
View map »


Telephone: 405.509.9312
Contact Name: Lauren Daughety

More information

America’s largest interactive comedy murder mystery dinner show is now playing at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel. At The Dinner Detective, you’ll tackle a challenging crime while you...

Cost: $59.95

Where:
The Skirvin Hilton
1 Park Ave
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Sponsor: The Dinner Detective
Telephone: 866.496.0535
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags