July 21, 2011

Kansas wildlife scarce as drought-hit rivers trickle

Biologist Don Distler says he has never seen the Ninnescah River this low in the nearly 30 years he has run Wichita State University's biology field station. He described the river more as sand bars than a flow of water.

Don Distler, a biologist, has gotten only one mosquito bite this summer. Other years "I'd be covered with them," he said. "I couldn't sit out at night."

But the reason for his mosquito-free summer isn't bug spray.

It's drought.

Distler, who manages Wichita State University's biology field station, about 35 miles southwest of Wichita on the Ninnescah River, said he has never seen the river this low in the nearly 30 years he has run the center. He described the river more as sand bars than a flow of water.

Distler also hasn't heard a bullfrog, seen a toad or suffered from multiple tick and chigger bites. Due to low water levels, the fish stay in pools, where birds can trap and eat them, like cats with a goldfish bowl, he said.

"It's too dry for everything — from the little things to the big things, which eat the little things," he said. "The whole food chain is in sort of an 'on-hold' position."

Because of the drought, creatures living near the river have moved, died or gone into a type of hibernation in the soil, reducing some populations of birds, insects and mammals by anywhere from 50 to 80 percent, he said.

"Everything is affected," Distler said.

Among lowest river levels in decades

The Ninnescah River is at its eighth lowest level since the U.S. Geological Survey set up a gauge on the river near Peck in 1938.

But hydrologist Brian Loving said the river is losing enough water it could set a record.

The river flows into Cheney Reservoir, which provides some of the water for Wichita.

The gauges on other south-central Kansas rivers, like the Little Arkansas and the Chikaskia, also show low streamflow levels.

Water levels will likely decrease even more with July marking the month that rivers start to dry up, Loving said. September and October are the lowest months for streamflow because rivers have lost water to irrigation and to summer heat, he said.

That pattern could be a problem this year, though.

"If we don't get water soon, some of these streams could be at their worst ever in a couple weeks," Loving said.

He said many of the records for rivers in the area were set during the later years of major droughts, specifically 1935-1940, 1954-1957 and 1989-1992.

"It's not the worst ever, but it's pretty bad," Loving said. "It hasn't been this bad for 20 years."

The Wichita USGS field office monitors 58 check points on area rivers. Just this week, points on the Little Arkansas at Alta Mills and at Highway 50 near Halstead, both north of Wichita, went dry, meaning there's no water flowing in the river. The only water is in isolated pools.

"If the heat stays on, eventually the rest on downstream could go dry also," said Michael Holt, lead hydrologic technician. "That will be depending on rainfall."

Meandering through much of Harper and Sumner counties, the Chikaskia River has provided crystal-clear swimming holes and plenty of tasty catfish for area residents.

But this summer, outdoorsman Dallas Pontious, of Milan, said there are dead fish everywhere and called the river "stone-cold dry" at Argonia.

"You could put an inner tube on it, but I don't think it would float," said Pontious, who lives within a quarter-mile of the river. "It's about a half-inch of water. My dad's 60, and he's never seen it this bad. It's pathetic."

Little spring rain

State climatologist Mary Knappsaid area rivers started to go dry last fall, but low flows in the fall and winter are common. The problem happened this spring when low precipitation amounts caused very little runoff.

The bulk of the rainfall happens in the summer she said, but Wichita has not met average precipitation amounts for the months of May or July. The months of May, June and July have all had above normal temperatures, Knapp said.

By the end of July, the average precipitation amount is 18.6 inches. Wichita is about 7 inches behind that. It has only rained 0.33 inches here in July. Though a tenth of an inch will moisten the soil, three-fourths of an inch of rain is needed to produce runoff for rivers in dry conditions.

Low precipitation and hot temperatures build off each other, Knapp said. The soil and atmosphere are dry enough to create a stable profile.

Knapp said a change from the state's entrenched pattern would require a major shift in global patterns, possibly from monsoon moisture in the Southwest, or hurricane activity. "Until there is one of these major events, there's not really anything to provide sustained relief," she said.

A National Weather Service forecaster said weekend chances of precipitation in the area are very low. Temperatures will stay close to 100 through at least Monday.

Cheney Reservoir

Rivers aren't the only bodies of water affected by the drought. Loving said no water has been released from Cheney Reservoir since March, but the water level has dropped a foot and a half from evaporation.

Wichita pulls its drinking water from the reservoir, but the city doesn't have anything to worry about right now, said Joe Pajor, co-interim director of public works and utilities.

When reservoir water is in the conservation pool, the city has full rights to withdraw water, he said. When it falls below that, Wichita is not allowed to withdraw water.

The conservation pool is still 89 percent full. Last week Wichita used an average of 55 million gallons each day from the reservoir. Wichita also gets water from an aquifer north of the city.

If the area does not get precipitation during the winter and has another summer of extreme heat and low precipitation, the situation could be different, Pajor said.

"But right now it's not a problem," he said. "We're in good shape."

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