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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.

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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.

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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.

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Calendar

May 2019

"Sandy Magrath: Dogs of the Southwest" art exhibit will be open May 1 - June 30, 2019, at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, OK. A meet the artist reception will be 3:30 -...

Cost: $6 adults

Where:
Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
1000 Chisholm Trail Parkway
Duncan, OK  73533
View map »


Sponsor: Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
Telephone: 580.252.6692
Contact Name: Stacy Moore
Website »

More information

Start your Sunday morning by perfecting your practice during our outdoor yoga class. Enjoy the beauty of yoga outdoors in the glow of the Ferris Wheel lights! This class welcomes all levels, from...

Cost: Free

Where:
Wheeler Ferris Wheel
1701 S. Western Ave.
Oklahoma City, OK  73109
View map »

More information

James Bailey from Missoula, Montana, is ARTSPACE at Untitled's visiting Artist in Residence; his exhibition, Map-ify, is on view May 9th through July 6th.  "My work examines...

Cost: Free

Where:
ARTSPACE at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Telephone: 405.815.9995
Website »

More information

MILLER IN MAY HOME TOUR HIGHLIGHTS CHARACTER AND CHARM The 20th anniversary of Miller's beloved home tour Miller Neighborhood's most popular event is back for 2019… and...

Cost: $10 - $30

Where:
Miller Neighborhood
NW 10th to NW 16th, N Villa to N May
Oklahoma City, OK  73107
View map »


Sponsor: Miller Neighborhood Association
Telephone: 405.642.5982
Contact Name: Elizabeth Beard

More information

Escape the ordinary, and learn about OKC from a different point of view. Relax in the climate controlled cabin on one of our 65’ cruisers, or enjoy the breeze on the...

Cost: Adult: $20 Seniors and Children: $15

Where:
Regatta Park Landing
701 S. Lincoln Blvd
Oklahoma City, OK  73119
View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma River Cruises
Telephone: 405-702-7755
Contact Name: Che Loessberg
Website »

More information

OKC's premier chamber orchestra, the Oklahoma Virtuosi, presents their season finale concert.  Concert will include: St. Paul's Suite Op.29 No.2 by Gustav Holst,...

Cost: Free

Where:
21C Hotel
900 W. Main St.
Oklahoma City, OK  73106
View map »


Website »

More information

As the first anniversary of her sixth album Conversation With A Ghost approaches in June, Italian-born and Austin-based singer-songwriter Giulia Millanta possesses a...

Cost: $15-$20

Where:
The Blue Door
2805 N. McKinley Ave.
Oklahoma City, OK  73106
View map »


Sponsor: The Blue Door
Telephone: (405) 524-0738
Website »

More information

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"Sandy Magrath: Dogs of the Southwest" art exhibit will be open May 1 - June 30, 2019, at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, OK. A meet the artist reception will be 3:30 -...

Cost: $6 adults

Where:
Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
1000 Chisholm Trail Parkway
Duncan, OK  73533
View map »


Sponsor: Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
Telephone: 580.252.6692
Contact Name: Stacy Moore
Website »

More information

James Bailey from Missoula, Montana, is ARTSPACE at Untitled's visiting Artist in Residence; his exhibition, Map-ify, is on view May 9th through July 6th.  "My work examines...

Cost: Free

Where:
ARTSPACE at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Telephone: 405.815.9995
Website »

More information

Piedmont Airlines will be hosting a Information Session for ramp agent jobs at Embassy Suites in OKC. Please plan to spend up to 3 hours with us, as we will have you fill out applications, listen...

Cost: Free

Where:
Embassy Suites
1815 South Meridian Ave.
Oklahoma City, OK  73108
View map »


Sponsor: Piedmont Airlines
Telephone: 704-359-2477
Contact Name: Nick Calo
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

James Bailey from Missoula, Montana, is ARTSPACE at Untitled's visiting Artist in Residence; his exhibition, Map-ify, is on view May 9th through July 6th.  "My work examines...

Cost: Free

Where:
ARTSPACE at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Telephone: 405.815.9995
Website »

More information

"Sandy Magrath: Dogs of the Southwest" art exhibit will be open May 1 - June 30, 2019, at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, OK. A meet the artist reception will be 3:30 -...

Cost: $6 adults

Where:
Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
1000 Chisholm Trail Parkway
Duncan, OK  73533
View map »


Sponsor: Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
Telephone: 580.252.6692
Contact Name: Stacy Moore
Website »

More information

Watch happy hour turn to golden hour while we fill the air with live music. For 5 consecutive Tuesday evenings, we invite OKC to come out after work to enjoy a variety of food, views,...

Cost: Free

Where:
Chisholm Creek
1316 W Memorial Rd
Oklahoma City, OK  73114
View map »


Sponsor: OkSessions.com
Contact Name: James
Website »

More information

Show More...
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"Sandy Magrath: Dogs of the Southwest" art exhibit will be open May 1 - June 30, 2019, at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, OK. A meet the artist reception will be 3:30 -...

Cost: $6 adults

Where:
Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
1000 Chisholm Trail Parkway
Duncan, OK  73533
View map »


Sponsor: Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
Telephone: 580.252.6692
Contact Name: Stacy Moore
Website »

More information

James Bailey from Missoula, Montana, is ARTSPACE at Untitled's visiting Artist in Residence; his exhibition, Map-ify, is on view May 9th through July 6th.  "My work examines...

Cost: Free

Where:
ARTSPACE at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Telephone: 405.815.9995
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

"Sandy Magrath: Dogs of the Southwest" art exhibit will be open May 1 - June 30, 2019, at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, OK. A meet the artist reception will be 3:30 -...

Cost: $6 adults

Where:
Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
1000 Chisholm Trail Parkway
Duncan, OK  73533
View map »


Sponsor: Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
Telephone: 580.252.6692
Contact Name: Stacy Moore
Website »

More information

James Bailey from Missoula, Montana, is ARTSPACE at Untitled's visiting Artist in Residence; his exhibition, Map-ify, is on view May 9th through July 6th.  "My work examines...

Cost: Free

Where:
ARTSPACE at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Telephone: 405.815.9995
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

James Bailey from Missoula, Montana, is ARTSPACE at Untitled's visiting Artist in Residence; his exhibition, Map-ify, is on view May 9th through July 6th.  "My work examines...

Cost: Free

Where:
ARTSPACE at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Telephone: 405.815.9995
Website »

More information

A nationally touring exhibit “Bison: Ancient. Massive. Wild.” will open May 24 at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, OK. This exhibit explores the significance of...

Cost: $4 - $6

Where:
Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
1000 Chisholm Trail Parkway
Duncan, OK  73533
View map »


Sponsor: Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
Telephone: 580.252.6692
Contact Name: Toni Hopper
Website »

More information

"Sandy Magrath: Dogs of the Southwest" art exhibit will be open May 1 - June 30, 2019, at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, OK. A meet the artist reception will be 3:30 -...

Cost: $6 adults

Where:
Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
1000 Chisholm Trail Parkway
Duncan, OK  73533
View map »


Sponsor: Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
Telephone: 580.252.6692
Contact Name: Stacy Moore
Website »

More information

Show More...
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More than 90 visual artists will line the streets of the Historic Paseo Arts District, selling original artwork in a wide variety of media, from painting and photography to wood and jewelry, and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Paseo Arts District
3022 Paseo
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
View map »


Sponsor: Paseo Arts Association
Telephone: 405-525-2688
Contact Name: Paige Powell
Website »

More information

Enjoy all your favorite activities at the Orr Family Farm for a special price! Admission is only $8 per person on this day only.

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


Telephone: 405.509.9312
Contact Name: Lauren Daughety

More information

"Sandy Magrath: Dogs of the Southwest" art exhibit will be open May 1 - June 30, 2019, at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, OK. A meet the artist reception will be 3:30 -...

Cost: $6 adults

Where:
Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
1000 Chisholm Trail Parkway
Duncan, OK  73533
View map »


Sponsor: Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
Telephone: 580.252.6692
Contact Name: Stacy Moore
Website »

More information

A nationally touring exhibit “Bison: Ancient. Massive. Wild.” will open May 24 at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, OK. This exhibit explores the significance of...

Cost: $4 - $6

Where:
Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
1000 Chisholm Trail Parkway
Duncan, OK  73533
View map »


Sponsor: Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
Telephone: 580.252.6692
Contact Name: Toni Hopper
Website »

More information

James Bailey from Missoula, Montana, is ARTSPACE at Untitled's visiting Artist in Residence; his exhibition, Map-ify, is on view May 9th through July 6th.  "My work examines...

Cost: Free

Where:
ARTSPACE at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Telephone: 405.815.9995
Website »

More information

Save $5 on a Dual Park Pass this Memorial Day Weekend! Get a full day of fun at Andy Alligator’s Fun Park and Water Park for only $29.99. A Dual Park Pass includes Unlimited Rides &...

Cost: Save $5 on a Dual Park Pass!

Where:
Andy Alligator's Fun Park & Water Park
3300 Market Place
Norman, OK  73072
View map »

More information

Escape the ordinary, and learn about OKC from a different point of view. Relax in the climate controlled cabin on one of our 65’ cruisers, or enjoy the breeze on the...

Cost: Adult: $20 Seniors and Children: $15

Where:
Regatta Park Landing
701 S. Lincoln Blvd
Oklahoma City, OK  73119
View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma River Cruises
Telephone: 405-702-7755
Contact Name: Che Loessberg
Website »

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

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