The Arkansas River was lowered more than a year and a half ago for construction of a new dam at Lincoln Street, and now it and other associated projects are complete.
The $13.7 million dam and Lincoln Street bridge are in place. A passage to allow for boats and fish to travel around the dam has been built.
But neither the dam nor the passage is getting much use. Only a dribble of water is flowing along the Arkansas River in downtown Wichita.
The river is so low that the first Lights on the River boat parade has been moved to dry land.
Organizers say the Dec. 1 evening event is still on – there just won’t be any big boats floating along the river in downtown Wichita.
“It’s a challenge for sure,” said Sarah Goertz, the parade chairman for the RiverCity Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy group hosting the event. “Oklahoma City has been doing it for the past seven years; of course, they’ve always had water.”
Disappointed? You bet. No one is sure when the dam can be raised to provide enough water downtown for boats.
“We desperately need it to rain,” said Gary Janzen, city engineer and assistant director of Wichita’s department of public works and utilities.
It will take between six to nine inches of rain to help bring the water levels back up, said Scott Lindebak, Wichita’s storm water division manager.
This is the second-lowest the Arkansas River has been in the 78 years the United States Geological Survey has been keeping records on the Arkansas River near downtown. The only time it has been lower was in 1957 when there was only 15 cubic feet — 112 gallons —per second flowing through downtown Wichita. Currently, about 31 cubic feet — about 232 gallons — per second is flowing. “We are not the lowest we have ever been, but we are flowing about 10 percent what we normally do,” Lindebak said.
The river is usually about four to six feet deep – 12 feet at flood stage. What water is making its way along the riverbed in between the sand bars is only about a foot to a foot-and-a-half deep. Weeds and trees are growing in the river where water once flowed.
Once Wichita receives that drought-quenching rain and the river is flowing at a more normal pace, it will take only a half a day for the river to rise to its usual level after the dam is raised.
Do it now and it would most likely cause a significant fish kill south of the dam. Without enough water flowing downstream, there wouldn’t be enough oxygen in the water for the fish that are still there.
“The water flow is so low,” Janzen said. “Even when we raised the river for the River Festival we were concerned then what it might do downstream. The fear is what it will do to the ecology downstream. If we raise the dam now it would significantly cut off the flow downstream during that period of time.”
At the current level and flow rate, it would take nearly a week to 10 days to raise the river in downtown to the level Wichitans are accustomed to seeing, Janzen said.
The water is so low that Wally Seibel, who each month leads float trips along the river, plans to move those trips to area lakes and reservoirs. But, he says, he can’t wait until he can once again lead trips along the Arkansas and use the new boat passageway around the dam.
“Maybe we haven’t been living right because it quit raining,” the 79-year-old Kansan joked.
“If we ever get back to the normal water levels we have experienced in the past decade, the city’s new construction will be a wonderful recreational asset. Everything they did there will make for a nice waterfront.”