It's time to mow the Arkansas River: Drought produces more weeds than water

09/08/2011 11:00 AM

08/05/2014 4:25 PM

Calvin Cupp stood at a Wichita downtown development meeting recently in the new Drury Broadview Hotel, looking out a window onto what is usually the Arkansas River.

"It's about time they started mowing it," Cupp remembered thinking.

Cupp pays close attention to the rivers. He's coach of the Wichita State University rowing team. By working with the City of Wichita flood control operators, Cupp said they've managed to maintain pools on the Little Arkansas, so his team of 60 men and women can practice in preparations for their fall seasons.

The team has been fortunate, geologists say, because Sedgwick County is among the few places on the Little Arkansas river that have water.

The rivers downtown are more sand and weeds than water, after this year's dry, hot summer.

Geologists say many rivers across the state, including the big and Little Arkansas Rivers, haven't been this dry in about 20 years.

The past week, parts of the rivers running through Wichita have seen a fraction of their average . Wednesday, the rivers carried only 11 to 13 percent of their normal water flows in Sedgwick County. But the big Arkansas is still above the record lows set in the droughts of the 1950s.

"In 76 years of data, this is the 24th worst year," said Brian Loving, chief of data operations for the U.S. Geological Survey office in Lawrence.

Loving said river levels now are comparable to what they were during a drought that hit Kansas in the early 1990s. The worst decades for low rivers were in the mid 1930s and mid 1950s, Loving said. The USGS figures show the Arkansas Rivers in Sedgwick County reaching their lowest flows in 1956.

The Little Arkansas, meanwhile, has reached levels nearing the 1950s in many parts of the state.

River studies have shown that the stream flows of Kansas have lessened over the years, even when droughts haven't been as bad.

"What we've found is the stream flow is dropping over the years to lower levels than the precipitation is dropping from the droughts," Loving said.

Geologists are currently studying that trend to spot possible causes.

Although visitors are noticing the dry river bed, it has not yet effected conventions and tourism, according to the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors' Bureau.

"We're like everyone else, we want to see our river back to its normal levels," said Ken Vandruff, spokesman for the convention and visitors' bureau.

Construction on a new dam near Lincoln Street has had minimal impact on the river level, said Doug Kupper, director of the Wichita Parks and Recreation Department.

"Only if it starts raining again will we ever see it come back to normal levels," Kupper said.

So far, the Wichita State rowing teams have been able to practice and are still on schedule to begin competition later this month. Their first home meets are Sept. 24 and Oct. 8.

But Cupp is already looking for alternatives for next spring, when a different type of rowing competition will need bigger bodies of water.

"We went out to Santa Fe Lake, and that lake is gone," Cupp said.

Now, the coach is just hoping for a strong spring rain.

"We'll be back on the big river as soon as it gets back up," Cupp said.

Kupper, the city's parks and recreation director, said that will be up to nature.

"We just keep our eyes on it every day -- and pray a little for rain," Kupper said.

Kansas River Flow Study

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