Memorial Day weekend business at El Dorado Reservoir’s Shady Creek Marina was down more than 50 percent from past years.
Mike Morgan, who owns the marina and nearby boat dealership, said high winds were probably a factor and that the lake’s low water levels certainly contributed.
But he’s worried low water levels and a corresponding drop in lake usage might become the norm. He’s one of many lake users concerned about what could happen if the city of El Dorado sells water from the lake to Wichita.
The Wichita City Council will discuss that possibility Tuesday.
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“I think (boaters) would just quit coming here if the water level drops too low,” Morgan said. “(El Dorado officials) say it will be fine if they drop it down five feet. We’re down 41/2 feet now (because of drought), and it’s not fine out there.”
Morgan said he has heard of several boats recently being damaged by hitting submerged trees or rocks. Others have gotten stuck in the shallows.
He’s not the only lake user opposed to selling the lake’s water.
“I have some very serious concerns, and I know a lot of people do, probably the majority” said state Rep. Will Carpenter, R-El Dorado. “What’s happening out there right now, with the low water from the drought, shows it can make a huge difference.
“I got my boat stuck out there last weekend, and I was 400 yards from shore, and it looked like I should have been in deep water.”
Kurt Bookout, El Dorado’s water spokesman, could not be reached for comment for this story.
Like Morgan and Carpenter, Ernie Condon worries the uncertainty of Kansas weather could quickly add to problems created by any amount of water sold.
“If we have a five-foot drop (by sale), and then we get two years of drought, like we’ve had, where will we be?” asked Condon, Walnut Valley Sailing Club commodore.
“We could have some big problems with the water depths around our boat slips. We already do with current water conditions.”
Condon said the 120-member club has about 80 sailboats moored at its dock on the lake’s west side. Some of the largest boats have big enough keels that they need at least six feet of water to float freely. But once away from the docks, Condon thought even a sizable water drop wouldn’t hurt their ability to sail on the main part of the lake.
Seth Turner, El Dorado State Park manager, has followed the ongoing debate, and said lower water levels could have mixed impacts on the average million annual visitors to his park.
“As far as your hardcore camping crowd, they’re mainly coming for land-based facilities,” Turner said. “Many probably wouldn’t care.
“But within that group you have those who come to camp and ski, and water levels are going to be a concern to them so they might go camp somewhere else.”
Turner also was concerned about what could happen if a significant drawdown was followed by dry conditions.
“We’re dependent on Mother Nature to refill the reservoir, and sometimes she gets in a mood and doesn’t want to refill us right away,” Turner said.
While very low levels could make launching boats difficult and discourage shoreline angling because the shore could be so far from campsites and parking areas, large drops in water levels might not hurt the lake’s fishing quality.
Craig Johnson, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism fisheries biologist, said fluctuating water levels can improve fish populations. Water rising into shoreline vegetation that grew during periods of drought offers freshly hatched game fish shelter from predators and provides good fishing for years to come as those fish mature.
Water level decreases also make it easier for adult fish to feed on smaller fish, which can improve growth rates. After two years of low water at El Dorado, Johnson said many anglers are commenting how fat the walleye, crappie, white bass, wipers and catfish are at the lake this year.
But fat fish this year could mean slim fish populations in coming years.
“The problems happen when the low-water situation becomes the norm and not the exception,” he said. “If you get two, three or four years of low water, the fish that hatched those years don’t have anywhere to hide and that leaves gaping holes in sport-fish populations for years to come.”
Carpenter, the state representative, thinks El Dorado officials may be overlooking how a loss of water – and the resulting loss of people using the lake – could impact local businesses.
“There’s no doubt (lake users) bring a lot of money into the local economy,” said Carpenter, who also is a small business owner. “Those 60,000 people on the weekend have to buy their stuff somewhere ... that’s a lot of pops and chips and cook-out stuff.”
Carpenter and Morgan said they’re frustrated how the entire situation is being handled by El Dorado city officials. Carpenter said the general public hasn’t been given a chance to weigh-in on the topic.
Morgan said he and other major stakeholders haven’t, either.
“I’ve never been invited to any of their meetings, and I’ve asked to be invited,” he said. “None of the stakeholders have been invited to anything. We haven’t been able to be heard, and they don’t tell us anything.”
Such uncertainty, and talk they’ve heard from others following the issue, also frustrates Carpenter and Morgan.
“(Bookout) is telling people I’m fine if they drop the level five feet for this, and I never said that,” Morgan said. “That was taken out of context about something totally different.”
Morgan said he isn’t totally against the sale of water from the lake, if some realistic limitations are attached. One possibility would be to only sell water that’s above the lake’s normal level.
He thinks public opinion could change if those who have a stake in the lake are given more solid facts, and if city officials started working with all constituents.
“We could probably get something done if we got some cooler heads in this deal,” Morgan said.