The Wetland Explorer–The Water(less) Year in Review

This article appeared in the Great Bend Tribune on Sunday, November 18 as part of the monthly KWEC column, The Wetland Explorer.

Has Cheyenne Bottoms dried up before?  How much rain will it take to fill Cheyenne Bottoms again?  Did the two inch rain we received last weekend fill up Cheyenne Bottoms?  Why can’t we drill water wells and fill Cheyenne Bottoms?

All of these questions, and others, have started common conversations at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center this summer.  Let’s address this elephant in the room.

Cheyenne Bottoms has been completely dry since mid-July.  Check out this poster produced by the U.S. Geological Survey that illustrates the receding water levels in Cheyenne Bottoms from 2010 to 2012.  Click here.

The last time the Bottoms were completely dry was in 1991.  Previous to that, the Bottoms had been dry several times throughout history.  The thing to remember about water resources in this part of the state is how cyclical they can be.  We all remember the flood of Cheyenne Bottoms in 2007.  In a matter of five years we’ve gone from one extreme to the other.  Similarly, 1927 had probably the biggest flood on record in Cheyenne Bottoms, and four years later by 1931, the Bottoms were dry as the region entered the Dust Bowl days.

It is this cyclical pattern that leaves us confident that wildlife and birds using Cheyenne Bottoms will survive just fine.  Drought has happened before, and it will happen again, and wildlife in general are much more adaptive to the local conditions than we are.  Yes, some animals have perished, but all-in-all, the migratory birds will be back when we have water again as will all the other wetland critters that we enjoy seeing.  And, the silver lining of these dry times is the amount of work staff from Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism have been able to accomplish, improving habitats for wildlife when the water returns.

Looking over Pool 4b toward the KWEC. This pool is one of a few small pools that was created by two inches of rain that fell on November 10. Many of the pools are quickly drying.

So how much rain will it take for Cheyenne Bottoms to become the thriving wetland we all want it to be?  That is a hard question to answer as many factors will affect the amount of water that enters Cheyenne Bottoms.  First, we need to consider the three sources of water for Cheyenne Bottoms:  direct rainfall in the basin, surface runoff from the Blood Creek and Deception Creek basins north and west of Cheyenne Bottoms, and water diversions from the Arkansas River and Walnut creeks through a canal system.  Where the rain falls in relation to these three sources will determine how much water can be captured in Cheyenne Bottoms.  We saw almost two inches of rain fall last weekend almost directly over Cheyenne Bottoms.  However, because of how dry the ground is, very little surface water accumulated.  And, what did accumulate, much of the water has already soaked into the dry ground.

Geese accumulate at sunset in Cheyenne Bottoms in one of the small pools of water created by about two inches of rain that fell on November 10.

Could water wells or pumps be an option?  The short answer is probably not. First KDWPT does not own ground water rights to pump water into Cheyenne Bottoms.  Acquiring these rights would take time and resources.  Additionally, although we are in a wetland, water wells in the basin are not reliable and are of marginal water quality.  Finally, by pumping ground water to fill Cheyenne Bottoms, we would be adding stress to the already stressed water table in the region.  Local rivers and creeks do not flow as reliably as they once did a couple decades ago mostly because of the overuse of ground water supplies.

Unfortunately, the drought has many collateral effects.  Attendance at Cheyenne Bottoms, the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, and the Wetlands and Wildlife Scenic Byway has been greatly affected.  Hotels and other retail stores in Great Bend and the surrounding towns have also been punished this year by reduced tourists.  The drought and dismal forecast have even caused the KWEC to cancel the 2013 Wings N Wetlands Birding Festival that has become a stronghold biennial event since 2001.  Times and conditions will improve.

Ultimately, we all would like to see water return to Cheyenne Bottoms; however, we must be patient and realize that water will return and wildlife and humans will adjust to either the wet or dry cycle.

Despite the current water woes, you can still get excited about our local wetlands.  If you have questions about the water levels at Cheyenne Bottoms or other programs and activities that the Kansas Wetlands Education Center has planned call 877-243-9268.

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About Curtis Wolf

Curtis Wolf is the site manager at Ft. Hays State University's Kansas Wetlands Education Center (KWEC) at Cheyenne Bottoms. Curtis received a Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology and a Master of Science degree in Biology at FHSU, studying freshwater mussels. Before taking the job at the KWEC, Curtis was a biology instructor at Barton County Community College in Great Bend.

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