Making The Right Decision For The Kansas River
Today’s guest blog for our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series is from Dr. Melinda Daniels, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at Kansas State University:
Most Endangered. What this means is that the Kansas River is on the brink of a permanent change – a change in state from an already impacted, yet remarkably resilient and still wild river, to a controlled ditch.
The large rivers of America are already so impacted that most of us would hardly recognize them in their natural state.
Floodplain development has restricted river access to floodplains. To protect floodplain cities, infrastructure and farmland, levees, wing dikes, and rip-rap fasten once dynamic rivers in place and isolate them from their floodplains (Nature’s flood storage).
Dams large and small choke off sediment supplies and alter natural flow regimes, causing rivers to deepen and narrow.
In-channel mining dredges dig holes deeper than any natural pool, causing bed and bank erosion both up and downstream. The native fish populations eventually wither and disappear. Although still a beautiful and wild river in its upper reaches, the Kansas River is on this sad trajectory, and hence, why it is indeed Most Endangered.
The Kansas River is emblematic of a Great Plains sand-bedded river – wide, shallow, and shifting. Born in the very arid and remote meeting spaces of Eastern Colorado and Western Kansas, the river is a true child of the Plains, characterized by the extremes of flood and drought.
Now somewhat tamed by dams that control most major tributary systems, the river is still remarkably wild and a joy to see and experience. Prehistoric paddlefish and very large catfish still lurk in the water while migratory birds stop over on their wanderings. Sand bars are plentiful, and the bed undulates with small sand dunes that form as sand transits downstream in the current.
As one of the only publically accessible rivers in the entire state of Kansas, where most rivers are classed as private property even for floated navigation, it is also a vital and rare public outdoor river resource. It is one of the only places in our state to go river canoeing or kayaking.
Sadly, the very sand that makes the river what it is may also turn out to be the river’s undoing – the cause for it to slip over the brink into a permanently damaged and unnatural state. Sand is money. Several sand dredging operations currently are active on the river, and together they remove more sand than is trapped by all the major tributary reservoirs combined.
The current proposal on the table is to drastically increase that mining capacity. To do so will cause irreparable damage to the river, causing the riverbanks and bed to erode, undermining infrastructure, threatening floodplain farmland and development, and resulting in “protection” structures like rip-rap to be brought in to fix the river in place. The end result will be anything but wild and natural, and a much less rich public resource.
The Kansas River doesn’t have to go down this road and become yet another destroyed natural resource. Its current semi-wild state can be preserved by stopping the degradation process at the dams.
There is no need to mine sand directly from the river, for there is plenty sitting right next to it in the floodplain. Pit-mining is an equally profitable means of producing sand that carries much reduced environmental risk.
Wild or even semi-wild rivers are a rare commodity in America. Sand is plentiful. We can have both if mining operations are eliminated from the channel.
Whether you are concerned about your drinking water or clean, safe places to recreate, it is essential we band together and protect the Kaw. Help us today to tell the Army Corps to end dredging on the Kaw by 2017!