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Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River / Book Review

The Arkansas River as it flows near Great Bend.  (Photo by University Press of Kansas)

Despite what is often a conspicuous lack of water, the Arkansas River is the third largest river in the state.  A Kansas college professor recently floated down -- or in some cases, walked -- the length of the river, more than 700 miles of it.  Commentator Rex Buchanan tells us about the new book that chronicles this adventure.

Commentator Rex Buchanan is director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas.  He was reviewing the book, Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River, by Max McCoy, published by University Press of Kansas.  McCoy is professor of journalism and director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University.

Production assistance for this commentary was provided by KPR News Intern Taylor Smith, a junior from Salina, studying news and information at the University of Kansas.



Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River / Book Review
By Rex Buchanan

The Arkansas River could use a little more attention.

That’s one reason it’s good to see a new book about the river by Max McCoy, journalism professor from Emporia State University.  Entitled “Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River,” the book traces the river from its headwaters near Leadville, Colorado, all the way to its exit from Kansas at the Oklahoma border.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m quoted in a place or two in the book.

The Arkansas is the third-largest river in Kansas, right after the Missouri and the Kaw.  It’s played a big role in the state’s history.  It was a boundary between Plains Indians tribes.  It provided a well-watered route for the Santa Fe Trail through arid western Kansas and eastern Colorado.  And the state’s largest city, Wichita, was founded at the confluence of the Ark and the Little Arkansas.

The Ark is a tale of two rivers.  So maybe it’s reasonable to pronounce it one way (Arkansaw) in Colorado, and another way (Ar-Kansas) in Kansas.  In Colorado, it starts near the Continental Divide as a mountain stream.  It runs clear and cold, perfect whitewater kayaking, which McCoy tries.  Then the Ark hits the High Plains of eastern Colorado, where it becomes the sluggish, silt-laden stream most of us are more familiar with.

By the Colorado border, the Ark is a shadow of its former mountainous self.  As McCoy notes, the river is highly saline, mostly because of reservoirs and irrigation in eastern Colorado, where evaporation and reuse concentrate salts in the water.

Then, in western Kansas, it disappears altogether.  

Kansans like to blame Colorado for that dry river bed. And for a long time, Colorado didn’t deliver the agreed-upon amount of water in the river.  But ever since a lawsuit that was settled in 2009, Colorado has delivered all the water to Kansas that it’s legally obliged to. Just west of Garden City, irrigation companies divert a large portion of the river.  Anything left disappears into wells drilled into the sands and gravels along the river’s floodplain, effectively draining river flow.  By Garden City, the river is gone.

The lack of water in the river means that much of the vegetation along the river course, like big cottonwoods, is dying off, replaced by more drought tolerant invasive species like salt cedars.  In places, it’s hard to even find the river’s channel, except for the tire tracks from ATVs.  McCoy wisely skips much of this section of the river.

The Ark reappears, at Great Bend, though by Wichita, it has urban water-quality issues. As he kayaks downstream from Wichita, McCoy decides not to drink river water or eat its fish.

Every few years, a toad-strangling rain puts water into a few miles of the dry part of the Ark.  Locals come out to watch.   It’s a heck of a note when people celebrate water in the third largest river in the state.

So the next time you head southwest, think about the Arkansas River.  Maybe pull over at a bridge in Dodge or Garden or, better yet, Syracuse, where you might actually see some water.  Give the river some reflection.  It could use all the attention it can get.    


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