Lake Hefner
Then and Now - A History

Lake Hefner is a 2580 acre impoundment completed in 1947 and operated by Oklahoma City. Water is brought into the lake from the North Canadian River and from the Canton Reservoir in Blaine County. Originally known as the Bluff Creek Water Supply Project, the lake was renamed for former mayor Robert Hefner because of his contribution to its creation.

In 1940 a $7,000,000.00 bond issue was voted to build the 75,000 acre feet reservoir. Construction was delayed during World War II. H.E. Bailey, an engineer, and City Manager was responsible for building the dam which was completed in 1942. The remainder of the project was ready in 1944 and Lake Hefner was finally dedicated in 1947. A 15 million gallon per day filtration plant, part of the original construction, was upgraded to 37.5 million gallons per day in 1950 to accommodate a population of over 240,000. A complete upgrade of the plant was completed in 1995.

Photos by Ace Aerial Photography from The Sunday Oklahoman, 12/12/99
The top picture is a 1949 aerial photo of Lake Hefner, looking north, showing The 
Village and Nichols Hills creeping west toward the water with nothing but pasture 
northwest of the lake. The bottom photo was taken 50 years later, also looking north, 
showing the Lake Hefner Parkway cutting across the lake's east shore, and most
                             of the pasture land replaced by development.
The land around the lake at the time it was built was undeveloped open space, primarily used for agriculture.  It was spotted with streams, ponds and woodlands.

Recreational activities have been a part of Lake Hefner from its earliest days. In 1941, Robert Hefner obtained financial aid from the federal Works Project Administration to provide $250,000.00 worth of beautification around the lake "to make it a recreation ground." The mayor and council agreed that several million fish be purchased for the lake.

Fishing was one of the first recreational uses beginning with the opening of the lake. The City began stocking the lake with fish raised in its own hatchery north of the lake. Fishing piers and docks were built for the Oklahoma City Police and Fire Departments. Two covered and lighted fishing piers were built In the 1970s and a new heated pier was added in 1997.

Organized boating activities came to Lake Hefner in 1946 when the Oklahoma City Boat Club from Lake Overholser moved even before any water flowed into the reservoir. A sailboat rental/lesson concession on the east shore immediately north of the Boat Club followed in the 1960s. In 1971, the Central Oklahoma Sailing Association, an unlimited and open membership sailing club, was founded at the Sailorama rental concession. It later moved to the Municipal Marina where it has remained. There have been a number of boating groups at Lake Hefner since that time. The Hobie fleet emerged from COSA as a club in its own right and moved to Hobie Point in the 1970's. The Oklahoma City Sailing Club has also occupied the area, as did the Boy Scouts of America's Sea Scout Ship 131. Currently the YMCA has a sailing program, the successor to Community Oklahoma City On The Water's sailing educational program.

A second catamaran organization known as the Oklahoma Catamaran Racing Association was formed. This organization soon grew to 120 members and was sponsoring several national class regattas annually, with production budgets reaching $4,000.00, bringing an estimated 200 sailing crews and over 4000 vendors and visitors to Lake Hefner each time. The home port of this organization became known as OCRA beach and was located on the east shore of Fireman's Cove east of the Municipal Harbor.

Another sailing group developed for board sailors began on the east shore. Known as the Central Oklahoma Boardsailing Association or C.O.B.A., this organization has varied in size from 200 to 400 active members.

The extreme fluctuations in size have been traced to the uncertainties and interruptions caused by highway construction and lake development plans. The board sailors are still active at the north end of the east shore.

Today, dozens of active one design class and handicap racing fleets are active at Lake Hefner. These fleets are either members of larger organizations or are functioning as independent sailing clubs. Sailing programs were also established by the Boy Scouts of America, The Girl Scouts of America and The American Red Cross. The Boy Scouts of America Ship 131 is currently active at Lake Hefner, sponsored by the Lake Hefner Boat Owners Association and sailing their own sailboats.

Lake Hefner has hosted numerous special recreational events numbering among them the annual Lake Hefner Streak cycling marathon and lake fund raiser, Heart Fund benefit Regattas, Passageways benefit Regattas, Cat Champs benefit regattas, Big Brothers & Big Sisters benefit regattas, Make-A-Wish benefit regattas, Red Cross benefit regattas, Ark Family Shelter benefit regattas, Cystic Fibrosis Bike-a-thon, marathons, and fishing derbies. The Central Oklahoma Sailing Association alone has raised in excess of $40,000.00 for Oklahoma City charities since 1981.

The Lake Hefner Golf Course was constructed on the southwest shore, west of the municipal harbor. A club house providing showers, lockers,  pro shop and grill concessions, and a golf cart rental facility was constructed. Even though there have been subsequent developments of several private golf courses in Oklahoma City, the more affordable Lake Hefner public golf course remains very active and is expanding today.The south shore, west of the golf course and east of the marina, and the east shore remained the most accessible and natural areas of the lake.  These areas were heavily used for fishing, boating, walking, jogging, kite flying, bicycling, and nature watching.

The development of Stars and Stripes Park and Lake Hefner Trails in the late 1970s and early 1980s provided a more structured environment for some of these activities and are highly valued today. The 1997 completion of the Lake Hefner Trails, a project of Oklahoma City Beautiful, connected the original trail loop at Stars and Stripes Park to a bicycle and jogging trail that circles the entire lake and is served by several parking areas, benches and water facilities along the route. This trail is enjoyed by hundreds of walkers, joggers, skaters, and bicyclists daily.

The history of the development of the south shore of Lake Hefner is the story of small desirable projects nibbling away at the "natural" areas of the lake. The greatest displacement of natural areas is due to the recent construction of The Lake Hefner Parkway, which eliminated all natural shoreline, grasslands and wooded areas along the east shore.  It is significant to note that the east shore appears dead.  For the most part, human and wildlife activity has been displaced. Only the area south of the South Lake Road from The Lake Hefner Parkway to Meridian, north along the shoreline to the Marina, west between the shoreline and golf course, plus a small part of Prairie Dog Point and the area north of the rip rap on the east shore is left in its natural state.

In the early 1960s private developers launched the first concerted effort to pry away a piece of public property at the lake. By that time a tremendous amount of agricultural land was being converted to residential and commercial use around the lake, and the Lake Hefner Reservation lands were considered a necessary buffer against urban encroachment on our water supply.

Nonetheless, fifty eight acres, at Portland and Northwest Expressway were proposed for apartment buildings. A 50% split with the City of Oklahoma City was offered in return for that land to be developed. On May 18, 1962, the council voted 7-1 to sell the land to a group represented by O.A. Cargill, Sr. (later convicted in the State Supreme Court bribery scandal.) Responding to an invitation from the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, Curtis P. Harris, an expert land condemnation attorney, and the man who handled the land condemnation for Lake Hefner, explained to the council that a very disruptive legal precedent would be set if land, originally condemned for the protection of a city water supply, was then used for private development. On May 22, 1962, after hearing the legal arguments from Mr. Harris, the vote was reversed 8-0.

The land on the east and west boundaries of the Lake Hefner Reservation had, by this time, been developed into residential neighborhoods. While the city had grown to the north of the lake, development adjacent to the northern edge had not taken place. The city purchased much of the area for use as a city park. The land along part of the south edge of the reservation was partially developed for residential use. However, the Northwest Expressway was developing quickly as a commercial corridor, consisting primarily of shopping centers, restaurants, office buildings, medical clinics, and banking and financial services. This development was seen by some as a rival to the declining central business district of Oklahoma City.

In 1974, plans to build a highway along the east shore of the lake were revealed. The Public Hearing was held in October of 1975 concerning the building of the West Bypass. After years of controversy, during which the benefits of such a road were weighed against its negative impact on the lake, the United States Department of the Interior, for environmental reasons, denied permission to build the road.

The West Bypass, however, was reborn in 1981 and renamed The Lake Hefner Parkway. Long and lively debates were heard in public hearings, in Planning Commission meetings and before the City Council. In 1985, the final Environmental Impact Statement was approved. The result was a road which was to be depressed along the shore line. It was also to be provided with sound barriers, landscaping and was to be buffered by an area designated as a park for its entire length as it traversed the Lake Hefner Reservation's eastern edge.  Assurance to the citizens that there would be no commercial development on the east side of Lake Hefner passed as a planning commission resolution in 1986 and was later incorporated by the City Council in the Oklahoma Master Plan. Apparently that section of the Master Plan was rewritten.   

In 1990, the pressure to "do something" with the lake was renewed by the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust who commissioned a planning group to provide a study for better utilizing the reservation lands. Explicit in their scope of work was developing a commercial land use plan for the lake. In 1991 the plan was revealed as a "conceptual plan." It called for intense commercial development of the east shore and the south shore to the golf course. Included were plans for a lodge and privatization of the facilities at the municipal harbor, and a shopping center with water taxi service in Fireman's Cove all the way to the Northwest Expressway. A public hearing was held and opposition to the plan as presented was very strong. In subsequent meetings the same concerns were presented and serious questions began to emerge as to the economic and recreational viability of the study.  The plan was nonetheless adopted, but during the process it became apparent to the users of the lake that development solutions must be found which addresses the concerns of the Water Trust, the Oklahoma City Council and the community and are acceptable to all.

The Lake Hefner Boat Owners' Association was born in 1992 in recognition of that need. The first item on the boater's agenda was to participate in development plans at the marina and maintain a dialogue with the City to help keep improvement budgets in line with realistic rental fees. The improvements to the marina included paved parking, lighting and convenience power for wet and dry slips and parking areas, mooring slides for wet slips, the break water for hurricane alley, gates and lock improvements, mast stepping boom, sail folding deck, boat wash, and hydrants at each gate. The LHBOA continues its mission today at the Activities Center inside Wet Slip Gate 4.