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When boating Kansas lakes, beware what lurks below

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, May 16, 2013, at 11:42 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at 2:53 p.m.

Reservoir conditions


Where: Kingman, Reno, Sedgwick counties

Water level: More than 61/2 feet below normal

Boat ramps: Of the seven, the only one open is the marina ramp on the east side.

Contact number: 316-542-3664

El Dorado

Where: Butler County

Water level: 41/2 feet below normal

Boat ramps: Five of seven open. West ramp in the Boulder Bluff area and one east of Shady Creek Marina are closed.

Contact number: 316-321-7180

Fall River

Where: Greenwood County

Water level: Almost 3 feet above normal

Boat ramps: All open

Contact number: 620-637-2213


Where: Ellsworth County

Water level: 7 to 8 feet below normal

Boat ramps: All closed

Contact number: 785-546-2565


Where: Marion County

Water level: Almost 3 feet below normal

Boat ramps: Three of five are closed. Two open are at the Marion Cove and the south ramp at Cottonwood Point.

Contact number: 620-382-2101


Where: Geary County

Water level: 4 feet below normal

Boat ramps: All three main ramps open. Only one closed is Walnut Grove.

Contact number: 785-238-3014


Where: Woodson County

Water level: 1 foot above normal

Boat ramps: All open

Contact number: 620-637-2213

Boaters beware.

That’s always been the watch phrase for boating on Kansas lakes, because so many are filled with trees and rocks lurking just below the water.

But as warm weather beckons boaters, they need to know some of the state’s lakes are trickier than usual. And El Dorado Reservoir could be flat-out dangerous.

Not even the Wichita area’s wet spring has been enough to overcome two years of drought. Cheney Reservoir is still more than 61/2 feet below normal; El Dorado is about 41/2 feet short of normal.

Seth Turner, El Dorado State Park’s manager, could hardly believe what he was seeing when he took the patrol boat out earlier this week.

“I was surprised by a few spots,” he said. “There were trees and rock islands sticking up that I’d never seen before.”

Understand that Turner’s history on that water extends back 25 years to when he was fished the reservoir as a kid.

“Folks need to go slower and be more careful,” Turner said. “There’s going to be a lot of areas where a guy might have buzzed over the water where tree stumps were 5 feet below. But now they’re at the surface level or a little lower.”

Shane Eustice, who regularly boats and guides anglers at El Dorado, fears the timing for such low water could accentuate the problems.

“A lot of people are really going to be anxious this weekend to finally get out, and they’re just going to jump in their boat and go,” he said. “I’m afraid someone could really get hurt.”

Craig Johnson, the state’s fisheries biologist for El Dorado, told of someone who bought a new boat last week, then wrecked the lower part of the motor in a shallow area the next day at El Dorado.

Eustice and Johnson say boaters should be careful around all points of land that jut out into the water. Often the water is only inches deep.

“You have to respect every point you go around,” Eustice said. “People just won’t believe you may be 600 yards from shore and still not be in safe water.”

About 100 to 200 boats are on El Dorado Reservoir on a normal weekend. Memorial Day weekend can bring out up to 500, Turner said.

Such water activities as skiing, wake boarding and tubing are done on the lake’s main body of water where there aren’t many hazardous areas, Turner said.

“You get more of those hazardous areas as you go north on the lake, where the fishermen go,” he added. “We get some party boaters up that way, so they need to be careful.”

At Cheney Reservoir, the only one of its seven boat ramps that is open is at the marina on the east side. The surrounding ground is finally wet enough that the reservoir is getting some runoff, but the water level is still low.

Jeff Koch, fisheries biologist at Cheney, said boaters don’t need to worry about striking flooded timber, but some of the areas close to shore could be too shallow for safe boating.

“You just have to plan on staying several hundred yards off shore on the main lake, and if you get closer, do it slowly,” he said. “It’s way too shallow up north, but I can’t think of anything in the middle of the lake that could be a problem.”

At Kanopolis Reservoir, which is about 30 miles southwest of Salina in Ellsworth County, all of its boat ramps are closed. You can stand at the end of a ramp, throw a rock and still not hit the water.

Erika Brooks, Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism boating education coordinator, said people should call ahead to state park offices to check on what ramps are open. Boaters should expect ramps to be more crowded because fewer will be open.

Once on the water, Brooks recommended having a lookout on the bow to make sure the boat isn’t running up on something.

“Take it slow. That’s going to be your best bet,” she said. “Most people think that once you get in the middle of the water, they’re OK. But there are islands raising that have never been there before because we haven’t been this low in a long time.

“It gets kind of scary.”

But at Fall River and Toronto reservoirs, which are about 80 miles east of Wichita, everything is in good shape, said Kim Jones, Fall River and Cross Timbers state parks manager. Cross Timbers State Park is at Toronto Reservoir.

Fall River is nearly 3 feet above normal; Toronto is a more than a foot above normal. All boat ramps are open.

“We should be the spot to come for fun,” Jones said.

At Milford Reservoir, the state’s largest lake and near Junction City, all three of the main boat ramps are open, park ranger Justin Wren said.

Water level, however, is about 4 feet below normal, he said.

Just north of Wichita, Marion Reservoir’s water is nearly 3 feet low and three of the five ramps are closed.

“We’re in a better condition than some,” said Torey Hett, who is with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the reservoir.

For those wanting to venture into Oklahoma, they’ll find plenty of water at Grand Lake and Kaw Lake. Grand Lake is nearly 6 feet above normal, and Kaw Lake is slightly above normal.

“We’ve actually been generating some water,” said Arlyn Hendricks, who is with the Corps of Engineers. “Being on the main stem of the river, our issues are usually too much water.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com. Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or mpearce@wichitaeagle.com.

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