Outdoors

State parks rally after flood damage to prepare for Labor Day rush

Kansas state parks are hoping the summer ends a lot better than it started.

The rain hit right before Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer. And it just kept coming.

That kept people from camping or getting out on the lake for what is typically the busiest time of the year. The state parks in south-central Kansas and east of Wichita were hit hardest as record rainfall flooded campgrounds and boat ramps.

“Our park was underwater for two months,” said Jacob Guiot, manager of Elk City State Park, two-hours southeast of Wichita.

State parks receive no money from the state general fund and rely almost entirely on camping, park access permits and cabin rentals for revenue.

More than half of that comes between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day.

The Wichita area got more than 7 inches of rain during the week leading up to Memorial Day and more than a half inch on the holiday itself. El Dorado Lake, a 30-minute drive northeast of Wichita, was almost 10 feet above normal levels at the start of Memorial Day weekend. Access to parts of the park were still down for Independence Day.

Fall River Lake, another popular camping destination about an hour east of Wichita, was almost 41 feet above normal at the end of May and it stayed high through July.

Elk City Reservoir, probably best known as the home of the world record, 123-pound flathead catfish caught by Ken Paulie in 1998, may have had it the worst of anywhere in the state.

Its campgrounds were flooded most of the summer including during the Fourth of July, and the water was so high that access roads were flooded, making it nearly impossible to get close to the reservoir.

Elk City flood waters rose four-and-a-half feet above the emergency spillway at one point. The park sustained costly electrical damage and two $30,000 docks were totaled.

Recovery

The parks department is working hard to make sure things are as close to normal as possible for Labor Day weekend, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism spokesman Ron Kaufman said.

When the roads at Elk City park were cleared and staff could finally arrive on the scene, they faced the monumental task of cleaning up the grounds and salvaging what was left of the summer season.

As Labor Day approaches, almost all of Elk City’s facilities are now open to the public.

“Overall, things have improved quite a bit,” Kaufman said.

El Dorado is mostly cleaned up and open to the public. Only one of four loops at the State Park’s Bluestem Point campsite remains closed.

Fall River is still a couple feet higher than normal but is no longer flooded. Debris carried by the flood remains littered throughout the entire park.

Cheney State Park, just west of Wichita, has reopened entirely. It might not look pretty, with most of the grass drowned in the flood, but it’s open. The East Shore cabins are available for rent.

Conditions may be on the upswing, but Kaufman said it’s impossible to calculate the cost of damages in some of Kansas’s 28 state parks.

“In many cases, we’re still unable to definitely get into an area to assess the damage, let alone do repairs,” Kaufman said. “That’s going to take several months in some cases to do that.”

Kaufman said the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to secure aid for repairs.

“We do plan to work with FEMA to see what we’re qualified to be able to receive some aid in that respect,” Kaufman said.

State park regional supervisor Alan Stark said FEMA will be touring parks to assess flood damage over the next few months.

Money

Costly structural damage aside, parks lost money this summer offering refunds to would-be-visitors who couldn’t reach the flooded campgrounds.

“We’re down, of course, in our revenue, because we just haven’t had the facilities available to folks and folks haven’t been able to keep their reservations,” Kaufman said.

Guiot said Elk City felt that hit.

“We missed out on the busiest part of the year, which was kind of a bummer for not only us but the community as well,” he said.

Labor Day weekend could be the park’s last shot to make up for the missed revenue.

Overall, state park funds were down $869,221 year-over-year when the fiscal year ended June 30. That decrease can be firmly attributed to May and June, which came in more than $1 million short of last summer’s numbers.

But state parks have rebounded. Despite some parks being closed, July revenues outpaced last year’s numbers by tens of thousands of dollars.

Guiot of Elk City State Park said he’s counting on Labor Day to produce big returns for Elk City.

“Labor Day is going to be probably the busiest time of the year for us,” Guiot said. “It’s kind of an end to the summer, so it’s going to be weird this year because it’s going to kind of be the beginning of our season.”

He said he’s optimistic about the park rebounding. The department has not yet assessed how much it will cost to repair flood damages at the state’s parks.

“I feel like we’ll bounce back really well from this and by next season, everything will be perfect,” Guiot said. “Heck, by Labor Day I even feel like we’ll be running smoothly.

“I’m going to knock on wood with that because it is a state park and anything can happen.”

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