Drought has stranglehold on state

1/7/2013

By AMY BICKEL

By AMY BICKEL

Special to The Telegram

They are just a few of the signs of a shrinking water system across a drought-plagued state — boats marooned in their slips, ramps no longer reachable along receding shorelines, and rivers that have diminished to mere trickles.

Underground, state officials will assess the damage there, too, as they begin their annual well survey this month.

Nearly everything in the state, in fact, is starved for water, whether it is the winter wheat crop, farm ponds, Kansas' natural wetlands or Cheney Reservoir, which has hit an all-time low of 8 feet below where federal officials would like to keep it.

In fact, every lake in the state is suffering.

"Most of the reservoirs are down," said Kanopolis State Park Manager Rick Martin. "And we aren't built like a bathtub. When you are down a few feet like we are, it really shows up on the shoreline."

Kanopolis itself is 6 feet below conservation pool — low enough that none of the lake's boat ramps is usable. In addition, with the drought expected to persist through March, Martin said he isn't expecting much inflow this winter or spring.

"Not unless something bizarre happens and Mother Nature sees fit to shine upon us," he said.

Wetlands hurting

The Bottoms typically is a wildlife haven for birds and hunters this time of year, said Manager Karl Grover. But the marshes went dry in July. Rain in November created a few puddles, drawing in some geese and hunters, but that lasted only a week or two.

The last time the area was completely dry was in 1991, Grover said.

"We had some years where we were short on water and hunter numbers were down, but not like this," he said, adding that other wildlife areas "are dry or hurting bad."

"You sure can tell the decrease in traffic," Grover said.

At McPherson Valley Wetlands, Brent Theede has been able to keep some water in the dwindling land sinks via a groundwater well. At present, the wetlands have two pools with water, roughly 20 acres, which are currently covered by ice.

"Every drop of water we have we had to pump from groundwater wells," he said.

But even that limited water isn't enough to attract waterfowl. In 2012, just 169 ducks were shot by hunters, compared to 3,500 on a normal year.

Drought hasn't necessarily been a bad thing here, Theede said. Crews have been able to do work on at the wetlands in areas normally filled with water.

Preparing for spring

While it is still a few months before the busy lake season, Cheney State Park Manager Ryan Stucky said another year of drought could be detrimental to the lake's already dwindling attendance.

In 2012, Cheney had 35 percent fewer visitors than the normal 550,000 who typically use the reservoir, Stucky said.

Not that folks could recreate at the lake much if they wanted. At less than 60 percent normal capacity, most of Cheney's boat ramps are surrounded by land, not water. At one location, a speedboat is stranded in one of the slips along the shore.

Cheney was built as a water source. The city of Wichita gets about 60 percent of its water from the reservoir. Residents' need for water, especially during a drought, has helped in Cheney's record decline.

"We're not dropping as fast as we were in the summertime," Stucky said. "People aren't irrigating their yards and water consumption is way less. Hopefully, we just get some rain."

A few big rains could solve the problem quickly, he said. Several years ago, when officials were working on the reservoir's dam, they lowered the lake six feet. Downpours raised the water level by nine feet in 30 days.

Martin said users didn't decline much until Labor Day. Nevertheless, without rain, conditions could reach lows seen in 2006, when the lake dropped to more than 7 feet below conservation pool during the busy summer season.

For now, Martin and his staff are preparing for another season, such as repairing picnic tables and cleaning up campsites. The low water levels also are helping them work on lake improvements, such as removing a sandbar by the South Shore boat ramp.

"I'd say we are trying to keep our heads above water," Martin said, then chuckled, "but it is difficult right now."

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