Researchers try to find way to control problematic cedars

They cut it, burn it, spray it and sic goats and beetles on it. But the invasive salt cedar tree thrives in western Kansas, rankling ranchers and sucking up precious water supplies.

“The question is how much water is this invasive species using?” said James Butler, senior scientist with the Kansas Geological Survey at Kansas University. “If we go in and remove this salt cedar, will our rivers flow again?”

Butler and a team of scientists are researching the salt cedar, a native of central Asia, in an effort to learn how much water the pesky plant drinks and what would happen if there were large-scale efforts to eradicate it.

“Because it’s so thick in places, it’s hard to gather cattle out of it,” said Dave Arnold, whose ranch covers 8,500 acres along the Cimarron River south of Ashland. “Just being able to manage my cow herd – it poses challenges.”

Introduced decades ago, the tree quickly spread. But it’s a pest not only for how it hides cattle but also for its thirst.

It’s a phreatophyte, meaning its roots dig deep and it takes water from the water table. But it’s unclear just how much water the plants take.

That is what Butler and fellow researchers are trying to find out. Butler’s team includes Donald Whittemore of the Kansas Geological Survey and Gerard Kluitenberg of Kansas State University.

The team is working on the Arnold Ranch, home to roughly 1,600 acres of salt cedar trees lining both sides of the Cimarron.

The area has been divvied up into test plots. One plot is a control plot that they won’t change. In other plots, Arnold is using different ways to get rid of the plants, such as herbicide, repeat cuttings and burning. The scientists are measuring the effect of each effort on ground water and the amount of water in the soil above the water table.

Susan Stover, manager of the High Plains unit at the Kansas Water Office, said concerns about the salt cedar are not separate from the larger issue of managing precious water resources in the state.

“We’ve got to look at everything as sort of a whole water resource system out there,” she said. “It is all interconnected.”