Wichita — The drought that has hit sections of Kansas this year has also affected wildlife that relies on rivers, streams and rain to survive.
“It’s too dry for everything from the little things to the big things, which eat the little things,” said Don Distler, a biologist who manages Wichita State University’s biology field station along the Ninnescah River in south-central Kansas.
“The whole food chain is in sort of an ‘on-hold’ position,” Distler told The Wichita Eagle.
Because of the drought, creatures living near the river have moved, died or gone into a type of hibernation in the soil, reducing some populations of birds, insects and mammals by anywhere from 50 to 80 percent, he said.
“Everything is affected,” Distler said.
The Wichita USGS field office monitors 58 check points on area rivers. Points on the Little Arkansas at Alta Mills and at Highway 50 near Halstead, both north of Wichita, went dry recently, with only water in isolated pools.
“If the heat stays on, eventually the rest on downstream could go dry also,” said Michael Holt, lead hydrologic technician.
The Ninnescah River, which flows into Cheney Reservoir is at its eighth lowest level since the U.S. Geological Survey set up a gauge on the river near Peck in 1938. Hydrologist Brian Loving said the river is losing enough water that it could set a record.
The gauges on other south-central Kansas rivers, like the Little Arkansas and the Chikaskia, also show low levels, and the water levels will likely decrease even more with July marking the month that rivers start to dry up, Loving said. September and October are the lowest months for streamflow because rivers have lost water to irrigation and to summer heat, he said.
“If we don’t get water soon, some of these streams could be at their worst ever in a couple weeks,” Loving said.
He said many of the records for rivers in the area were set during the later years of major droughts, specifically 1935-1940, 1954-1957 and 1989-1992.
“It’s not the worst ever, but it’s pretty bad,” Loving said. “It hasn’t been this bad for 20 years.”
State climatologist Mary Knapp said area rivers started to go dry last fall, but low flows in the fall and winter are common. The problem happened this spring when low precipitation amounts caused very little runoff. The bulk of the rainfall happens in the summer she said. But Wichita has not met average precipitation amounts for the months of May or July. The months of May, June and July have all had above normal temperatures, Knapp said.
By the end of July, the average precipitation amount is 18.6 inches. Wichita is about 7 inches behind that. It has only rained 0.33 inches here in July. Though a tenth of an inch will moisten the soil, three-fourths of an inch of rain is needed to produce runoff for rivers in dry conditions.
Knapp said a change from the state’s entrenched pattern would require a major shift in global patterns, possibly from monsoon moisture in the Southwest, or hurricane activity. “Until there is one of these major events, there’s not really anything to provide sustained relief,” she said.
Meandering through much of Harper and Sumner counties, the Chikaskia River has provided crystal-clear swimming holes and plenty of tasty catfish for area residents. But this summer, outdoorsman Dallas Pontious, of Milan, said there are dead fish everywhere and called the river “stone-cold dry” at Argonia.
“You could put an inner tube on it, but I don’t think it would float,” said Pontious, who lives within a quarter-mile of the river. “It’s about a half-inch of water. My dad’s 60, and he’s never seen it this bad. It’s pathetic.”