Impaired stream flows deplete many reservoirs; boating safety, waterfowl seasons may be affected
PRATT -- The past year has not been good to the reservoirs of northern Kansas. Drought and heavy water use have plagued the region, and the resulting lack of stream flow into these reservoirs has fishermen wringing their hands and boaters cautiously motoring waters so shallow that underwater hazards -- such as rocky outcroppings and barely submerged tree stumps -- present a risk.

"It's so bad in western parts of the state that the U.S. Geological Survey is saying that we have less water flowing than in the 1930s even though we have had more rainfall," says Steve Adams, natural resources coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "The state Division of Water Resources tells us that we have the lowest volume of water in some Kansas streams since records have been kept. What rainfall we've had just can't keep up with evaporation rates."

Kansas is not alone. One look at the internet site "U.S. Drought Monitor" -- www.drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html -- reveals that Kansas appears to be in better shape than surrounding states. Still, that is of little consolation to those who use the Sunflower State's many streams and reservoirs for recreation.

Northwestern Kansas has been hardest hit. Even reservoirs that seldom suffer substantial drops in water levels -- such as Glen Elder, Kanopolis, and Wilson -- have felt the effects of low stream flows due to lack of rainfall. Some reservoirs no longer have usable boat ramps because the water is so low. Webster Reservoir is the most critical, being 28 feet below conservation pool (normal lake level) -- a mere 12 feet at its maximum depth. Kirwin Reservoir is 23.9 feet below conservation pool, and Glen Elder is 7.7 feet low, extremely low for that lake. Wilson is 5.8 feet low, and Cedar Bluff is down 15 feet. Norton Reservoir would likely be completely dry but for a minimum pool agreement with the local irrigation district. As a result, it is maintaining at 18 feet below conservation pool.

Kanopolis Reservoir -- which is seldom low -- may exemplify the current trend. According to state park manager Rick Martin, the area is so parched that all boat ramps are high and dry.

"All our spring-fed creeks are almost completely dried," Martin explains. "Inflow from the reservoir's primary river -- the Smoky Hill -- is 2 to 5 feet per cubic second (cfs). Most of our viewing ponds and the Kids' Pond are about one-half full. Our visitation rate for Labor Day weekend looks pretty bleak."

Northeastern Kansas normally does not lack rainfall in summer, but even this area of the state is drier than normal. This compounds problems for area reservoirs -- including Milford, Perry, and Tuttle Creek -- that must release water to support U.S. Army Corps of Engineers navigation on the Kansas and Missouri Rivers. Many fishing lakes are low, as well, and Douglas State Fishing Lake, near Lawrence, has been drained for renovation.

While lack of water makes boating hazardous and fishing difficult, it may also affect waterfowl hunting if heavy rains do not come soon. Although Kansas rests in the middle of the Central Flyway, migrating ducks won't stop if ponds and lakes don't fill.

Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, near Stafford, is one of the most consistently reliable waterfowl stop-over points, but it is suffering, too. "Our Little Salt Marsh has a fair amount of water, and Big Salt Marsh is currently 75 percent covered, but most of the other smaller marshes are dry," says area manager Dave Hilley. "Conditions are really poor. We've still got some stream flow from Rattlesnake Creek, but not enough to keep up with evaporation. In fact, conditions are dry enough that we are discing many dry marshes for vegetation control."

Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, one of the premier waterfowl areas in the world, is not in good shape. The area is receiving no inflow from the Arkansas and Wet Walnut Rivers. Pool 1-B is holding about 12 inches of water, but all other pools are dry. "We've got a ways to go," says area manager Karl Grover. "Significant rainfall before teal season begins Sept. 9 could change things dramatically, but it would have to be a lot of rain."

Water levels in most major reservoirs in Kansas are monitored and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To find information about current conditions at these reservoirs, visit the Corps website , http://corpslakes.usace.army.mil/visitors/states.cfm?state=KS. Click lakes marked on the map and then click "Lake Levels" in the left-hand column of the page.

Cedar Bluff, Cheney, Sebelius, Kirwin, Lovewell, Glen Elder, and Webster reservoirs are managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation . For information on these lakes, go to www.recreation.gov/advancedsearch.cfm?states=KS.

The U.S. Geological Survey monitors stream flow in many Kansas rivers. For a comparison of Kansas stream flow from 2000-2006 with periods of drought in the 1930s and 1950s, go to http://ks.water.usgs.gov/Kansas/waterwatch/drought/drought-comparison.rev.htm.