By Michael Buhler
As the drought enters its third year here in south-central Kansas, local ponds, lakes and rivers are feeling its effects in earnest.
“We started losing pond water back in 2011, and many of the ponds have gone dry,” Sedgwick County Extension agent Gary Cramer said. “I know of cattlemen that were hauling water last year.
We haven’t had a major rain provide any runoff for pond filling for a long time.”
According to Craig Johnson, a fisheries biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT), El Dorado Lake in Butler County is sitting at four feet below normal, while Council Grove Lake is six feet below normal and is the lowest he has ever seen.
“Some lakes and other private ponds are going dry and that takes away a lot of fishing opportunities,” Johnson said. “We’ve lost a lot of fish in the last two summers.”
The situation is even worse at Cheney Lake, which is located just a few miles north of Cheney. The lake is eight feet below its normal level and just one of its boat ramps is open at the moment.
“The docks up by the shoreline are dry and there are several boat slips that are dry,” park ranger Mike Satterlee said. “The same is true with several of the yachts. Many of the sailboats have been taken out of the water. The yacht club and the sailboats have probably been hit harder because of their location.”
And the water itself is not the only thing suffering the effects of the drought.
“No water means no fish,” Johnson said. “A lot of our lakes are getting smaller and access is being reduced.”
Local wildlife is feeling the pain of the increasingly dry weather.
“As far as wildlife goes, there is less water – and just like that affects boats, it affects wildlife,”
Satterlee said. “The deer are having to travel farther to get water. I’m not noticing a big difference in waterfowl, but it probably has affected them.”
Charlie Cope, a KDWPT wildlife biologist out of Wichita, said that reports of animals acting abnormally might not be inaccurate.
“I think there’s an increase in coyotes in the area because of the drought,” Cope said. “I think some species have been negatively impacted because of the drought. Our beaver and muskrat complaints are probably half of what they were last year and that’s attributable to the drought. Their ponds have dried up and many of them have moved elsewhere.
“Our goose numbers had their first drop in the number of geese and goslings in the 11-year history of our survey. We don’t know if it’s because of the drought or if it’s because of our goose management program.”
Worst of all, forecasters do not see an end in sight to the drought.
“The forecast is not at all encouraging for rainfall in the amounts that we need to get runoff,” Cramer said.
If conditions stay dry, cities eventually could start restricting water usage.
“The city of Wichita is considering water restrictions, but they have not right now,” Satterlee said. “The city of Wichita pulls approximately 75 percent of its water from Cheney Lake. They draw a lot now and consume even more in the summer.”
Cramer echoes Satterlee’s concerns.
“I haven’t heard what the cities have said about their water supply, but they should be looking into it,” Cramer said. “Some of the cities in northwestern Sedgwick County, like Colwich and Andale, do a lot of crop irrigation during the summer.”
Cope wonders what might happen if Kansas is entering another era similar to the devastating Dust Bowl that affected the Midwest back in the 1930s.
“We’ve been blessed as a country and throughout my 63 years of living, we’ve had it pretty easy,” Cope said. “There’s been plenty of water and food and we haven’t had to suffer too many droughts. But how do we forecast what’s going to make it rain? If we are in a cycle like we were in the ‘30s, what then? We use a lot more water than we did then.”