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5:29 pm
Wed July 18, 2012

Drought Brings Misery To Arkansas River Basin

Originally published on Wed July 18, 2012 8:19 pm

Drought has set in early and hard across the Midwest, parching the Arkansas River basin. The river trickling out of the mountains is dry before it reaches some of the major agricultural uses downstream. And the drought is torching crops, sapping tourism and threatening supplies of drinking water.

High in the Rocky Mountains, about 10 miles north of Leadville, Colo., the Arkansas River starts as a trickle running off some of the tallest peaks in the continental United States.

In a normal year, "you would see snowcapped peaks and water rushing down," says Garry Hanks, a retired high school teacher who now serves as a deputy water commissioner in southeast Colorado.

But this year there's hardly even a dribble of water coming down from the mountains. And the drought intensifies just downstream.

Low River

Almost every drop of water of the shrinking Arkansas River is spoken for. Local farmers and other residents compete with tourism, fishing, and rafting.

"Rafting is the summertime [equivalent] of skiing when you're talking about Colorado," says Andy Neinas, who runs Echo Canyon, a large river outfitter. Rafting is big business on the Arkansas, and business is down. Neinas blames the forest fires more than the water levels, but the river is low.

All the water in the river is allocated based on seniority — the older the water claim, the higher the priority. Canon City, Colo., at the mouth of the Royal Gorge, holds one of the best claims. But even here, Bob Hartzman of the city's water department worries that its river water will soon be cut off.

"Our water rights have never been called out. That just shows you how things have changed over these last hundred years," Hartzman says.

Cracks In The Ground

When the call for Canon City's water rights does come, it'll be from 50 miles downstream near Avondale, Colo., where agriculture rules.

Dan Henrichs raises longhorn cattle on the wide-open plains of Avondale just east of the Rockies. It's desert dry normally, and this year has been even more arid and brutally hot.

Pale brown, sun-broiled scrubland surrounds this valley. Yet one pasture is green. Fields of thirsty watermelon and corn flourish a few miles away, all thanks to the river.

At the head gates of the High Line Canal and the Arkansas River, most of what's left of the river spills into rusty steel gates. The canal holds a very old claim and still runs strong. But most irrigation canals are dry, leaving miles and miles of crops to wither.

Stretches Of Sand

Travel 100 miles east on the river and you'll find Dale Mauch, who runs a big farming and cattle operation near Lamar, Colo.

"You can see by the cracks in the ground how dry it is," Mauch says, as he points to a withered cornstalk. The Fort Lyon Canal, which four generations of his family have relied on for irrigation, dried up last month.

"This is the first time that we went to zero before the Fourth of July," Mauch says. "That's just something [that] ... in 152 years has never happened."

Thirty-five miles farther downstream, the Arkansas River crosses into Kansas, where it is spelled the same but pronounced differently.

In Lakin, Kan., there's not even a hint of water under a bridge that purports to span the Arkansas River. Instead, dry sand stretches for miles and a deer carcass rots in the sun.

The river that supports mining, fishing and rafting — and waters corn, cattle, and lots of people — dies in western Kansas. It picks up again midway across the state and flows on through Oklahoma and Arkansas into the Mississippi River.

But this week 100-degree highs will bake most of this long basin and deepen the worst drought in memory.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We're going to begin this hour with a journey to witness the impact of the terrible drought across a wide swath of the country. All along the Arkansas River, for months, drought has been killing crops, depressing tourism and threatening water supplies. Our story comes from Frank Morris of member station KCUR and it begins at the river's headwaters high in the Colorado Rockies.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The Arkansas River starts here, about 10 miles north of Leadville, as a trickle running off some of the highest peaks in the continental United States.

GARRY HANKS: Eleven thousand, two, yep, and it's all down here from here.

MORRIS: Garry Hanks is water commissioner up here. He's an affable, gray-haired fellow, retired school teacher who is now in charge of a precious commodity, one that comes down from the mountains normally.

HANKS: You would see some snow, especially higher up, you would see snowcapped peaks and water rushing down.

MORRIS: But this year it's just kind of dribbling.

HANKS: Yeah, it's not even dribbling down. I can't see any right now.

MORRIS: And the drought intensifies downstream.

HANKS: So I'm going to take this pipe wrench and I'm going to shut this guy off.

MORRIS: Hanks and I have come to a head gate, two big steel valves set in concrete at a bend in this rocky stream. One's already closed. Now they both are. And a rancher downstream is out of water.

HANKS: He wasn't getting very much to start with. Now, he's not going to get any.

MORRIS: Because every drop of water in this river is spoken for. And just downstream from here, it's used mainly for tourism, fishing and rafting.

ANDY NEINAS: Pull it hard, pull it hard, pull it hard. Dig it in, friends. Dig it in, dig it in, dig it in, dig it in, dig it in. Bump. Nice job, nice job.

MORRIS: Andy Neinas is guiding a rubber raft full of tourists wearing orange helmets through the towering granite walls of Royal Gorge. He runs Echo Canyon, a big outfitter.

NEINAS: Well, rafting is the summertime of skiing when you're talking about Colorado.

MORRIS: Rafting is big business on the Arkansas, and business is down. Neinas blames the forest fires more than water levels, but the river is low.

NEINAS: Wow. Pull it hard, pull it hard. And I am probably going to have to get out and push. Pull it hard. Let's keep going hard, hard.

MORRIS: All the water in the river is allocated based on seniority; the older the water claim, the higher the priority. Canyon City, at the mouth of the Royal Gorge, holds one of the best claims. But even here, Bob Hartzman with the municipal water department worries that their river water will soon be cut off.

BOB HARTZMAN: Our water rights have never been called out. That just shows you how things have changed over these last hundred years.

MORRIS: When the call does come, it'll come from 50 miles downstream near Avondale, Colorado, where agriculture rules.

DAN HENRICHS: You see cows, when they're starting to trot and run towards us...

MORRIS: Dan Henrichs raises longhorn cattle out here on the wide-open plains just east of the Rockies. It's desert-dry normally, and this year has been even more arid and brutally hot. Pale brown, sun-broiled scrubland surrounds this valley. Yet, this pasture is green and fields of thirsty watermelon and corn flourish a few miles away, all thanks to the river.

HENRICHS: We are standing at the confluence or the head gates of the High Line Canal on the Arkansas River. Over here to the left, we have the Arkansas River.

MORRIS: Most of what's left of the river spills into rusty steel gates. The High Line holds a very old claim and is still running strong. But most irrigation canals are dry, leaving miles and miles of crops to wither.

DALE MAUCH: This corn right here is dead, and you can see by the cracks in the ground how dry it is.

MORRIS: Travel 100 miles east on the river and you'll find Dale Mauch, who runs a big cattle and farming operation near Lamar, Colorado. The canal that four generations of his family have relied on for irrigation dried up last month.

MAUCH: The Fort Line Canal is a canal that started in 1860. This is the first time that we went to zero before the Fourth of July. That's just something that's just - in 152 years has never happened.

MORRIS: On east, another 35 miles downstream, and the Arkansas River crosses into Kansas, where it's spelled the same but pronounced differently.

MAUCH: Standing down here just south of Lakin, Kansas under a bridge that purports to span the Arkansas River, however there's no river down here, not even a hint of water, just dry sand stretching for miles, and there is a rotting deer carcass.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

MORRIS: A couple of guys shooting guns. So this river that supports mining, fishing and rafting and waters corn, cattle, and lots of people dies in western Kansas. It picks up again midway across the state and flows on through Oklahoma and Arkansas into the Mississippi. But this week, 100-degree highs will bake most of this long basin and deepen the worst drought in memory.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.