Historic Floods Along Arkansas River

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Despite often being completely dry during drought conditions in western parts of Kansas, the Arkansas River can become deceptively menacing at high flow and cause millions of dollars in damage. The following briefly describe the Arkansas River Basin in Kansas, chronicle the effects of human development on streamflow in the basin, and provide brief descriptions of some of the larger floods.

Description of Arkansas River Basin

At 1,450 miles, the Arkansas is the longest tributary in the Mississippi-Missouri system. From its source near Leadville, Colorado (Arkansas River Historical Society, 2003). Regulation of streamflow by storage and consumptive use in Colorado has reduced the river to a small stream where it crosses the border into Kansas. Across the plains of Kansas, the channel of the river is very shallow, with the banks being less than 5 feet above low water in some places (Blackmar, 1912). What the river channel lacks in depth it makes up for in width, being as much as 1-mile wide in some places.

As a result of land-surface characteristics and water use in Kansas, flows in the Arkansas River remain small for a considerable distance within the State, increasing gradually to Wichita where they increase due to inflows from the Little Arkansas River (Jordan, 1986). As it travels through Kansas, the Arkansas River flows through mostly agricultural areas and then exits into northeastern Oklahoma. There it is joined by the Canadian, Cimarron, Neosho-Grand, and Verdigris Rivers. It then crosses the State of Arkansas and empties into the Mississippi River 600 miles north of New Orleans (Arkansas River Historical Society, 2003).

The Arkansas River Basin in Kansas can be divided into two subunits--the upper Arkansas River Basin and the lower Arkansas River Basin. The Arkansas River Basin as a whole has a relatively low potential for runoff as soil permeability is generally high and precipitation is generally low (Juracek, 1999). This low potential for runoff along with relatively flat to gently rolling terrain throughout its basin results in generally localized flooding that is mostly confined to areas immediately affected by excessive rains.

Effects of Human Development on Streamflows

Prior to the early 1880s, there was always an abundance of water in the river, and the channel, even down to the Little Arkansas River near Wichita, was usually full. Occasionally, however, the river was a bed of dry sand above the confluence of the Little Arkansas for a couple of months in the fall. During prolonged dry spells, water in the channel has been known to disappear suddenly, only to make its reappearance as unexpectedly within the next day or two (Root, 1936).

Development of the Arkansas River Basin in western Kansas began with diversions for irrigation of corn and sugar beets (Jordan, 1986). From 1880-1905, 12 irrigation canals were constructed to divert water from the Arkansas River between the Colorado State line and Great Bend, Kansas. These 12 canals were intended to irrigate from 5,000 to 100,000 acres. From 1900-10, irrigation wells began to be constructed in the Arkansas River Valley. Well development occurred because of the rapid expansion of irrigation in Colorado, which caused flow in the Arkansas River to cease during July and August when water was so sorely needed by Kansas irrigators. Well water could be obtained at depths of 6 to 20 feet. These early wells were constructed to supplement river flows, not to replace river water; however, by 2000, direct water withdrawals from the river for irrigation had deceased to supply water for only about 50,000 acres of Kansas land (C.V. Hansen, U.S. Geological Survey, written commun., 2003).

The considerable development of the Arkansas River in Colorado, including construction of John Martin Reservoir, completed in 1943 with 702,000 acre-feet or 227,000 million gallons of storage capacity, also affects flows of the river in western Kansas. Cheyenne Bottoms—a waterfowl and fishing area in Barton County enlarged from a natural shallow lake— - and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Stafford County are maintained in part by diversions from the Arkansas River and its tributaries. Other developments include diversions of floodwaters around Hutchinson, Wichita, and Valley Center, and a pipeline from Cheney Reservoir to Wichita (Jordan, 1986).

The Wichita and Valley Center Local Protection Project, authorized by the Flood Control Act (Public Law 738), was approved on June 22, 1936, and consists of levees, floodways, improved channels, and control structures on the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers and Chisholm Creek in Sedgwick County, south-central Kansas. Construction of the project began in May 1950 and was completed in March 1959. The project provides flood protection for approximately 49,000 acres of urban and rural lands in and adjacent to the cities of Wichita and Valley Center (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,1996).

The apparent downward trend of annual peak flows at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) streamflow-gaging station on the Arkansas River at Syracuse is the result of consumptive use of water for irrigation and storage in reservoirs. Decreasing streamflows have forced the decrease of irrigation by surface water from the Arkansas River and also has decreased the quantity of water available for the Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira waterfowl areas. In contrast, annual peak flows of the Arkansas River at Wichita have not shown a downward trend despite ground-water withdrawals from the adjacent Equus Beds aquifer for public supply in the Wichita area.

Major Floods Along the Arkansas River

May 18, 1877

Unprecedented high waters in the lower Arkansas River during May 1877 carried away or disabled all the bridges in Cowley County including the 6th Avenue bridge in Arkansas City (Root, 1936). The Arkansas River at Wichita (station 07144300, fig. 1) reached a stage of 21 feet; flood stage is 12 feet (river gage site and datum from reports of the U.S. Weather Bureau) (Putnam and Schneider, 2003, p. 396).

July 8, 1904

The Arkansas River at Wichita (station 07144300, fig. 1) reached a stage of 20.3 feet (river gage site and datum from reports of the U.S. Weather Bureau) (Putnam and Schneider, 2003, p. 396). Despite a slightly lower gage height than the 1877 flood, flooding was more widespread in Wichita because of backwater and overflow of the Little Arkansas River and Chisholm Creek as they entered the narrow channel of the Arkansas River in Wichita. Also, the six pile bridges crossing the Arkansas River at the time collected drift that retarded the flood causing overflow. Approximately 30 percent of Wichita was submerged on July 8 resulting in $30,000 in damages (almost $600,000 in 2005 dollars) (Murphy and others, 1905, p. 110-112).

1908

Historic information indicates that the October 1908 flood was the largest along the main stem of the upper Arkansas River in Kansas since the turn of the century. The flood resulted from excessive rains between Holly and Las Animas, Colorado, and northward over the Big Sandy Creek drainage basin in southwestern Colorado . Maximum flows were estimated at 97,000 cubic feet per second near Coolidge and 87,000 cubic feet per second at Syracuse (table 1) (Kansas Water Resources Board, 1962).

June 8-9, 1923

In June 1923, the entire drainage area between Hutchinson and Arkansas City received excessive rains. On June 8 and 9, Wichita reported 7.06 inches, Newton 5.75 inches, and Arkansas City 2.06 inches. Excessive precipitation fell over all of the Little Arkansas, Ninnescah, and Chikaskia River Basins as well as the Arkansas River Valley, and major flooding occurred on all of the affected streams. Wichita and Arkansas City were severely damaged. In Wichita, 6 square miles were inundated. At Arkansas City, two lives were lost, and property damage was estimated in the millions (Kansas Water Resources Board, 1960). Flood stages on the Ninnescah were the highest known (table 1).

April 21-23, 1944

The year 1944 was one of generally above-normal precipitation in the lower Arkansas River Basin. The most severe flood of that year occurred at Wichita and downstream to Arkansas City as a result of rains on April 21 to 23. On April 22, Wichita received 6.03 inches of rain, Newton 2.47 inches, Hutchinson, 3.05 inches, and Wellinton 3.38 inches. The merging of the flows from the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers in Wichita resulted in the flooding of about 200 homes and businesses in the city. The damages were estimated at nearly $5 million. Flood stages at Arkansas CIty approached those of the 1923 flood (Kansas Water Resources Board, 1960).

May - July 1951

The highest stages along the Arkansas River during 1951 occurred near Coolidge and at Garden City as the result of an intense storm on May 15, 1951 (table 1). In the Wichita area, Big Slough and Little Slough experienced flooding in July 1951 (Ellis and others, 1963). Flood-damage estimates compiled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the May-July 1951 flooding total $2,868,000 along the main stem of the Arkansas River (U.S. Geological Survey, 1952, p. 40).

May 16–17, 1957

Frequent precipitation after April 30 and high soil moisture content set the stage for flooding on May 16–17, 1957, in the Arkansas River Basin in south-central Kansas. The State Highway Commission (now the Kansas Department of Transportation) reported 45 road closures in the area, and extensive crop damage was left behind by floodwaters. In the Wichita area, the newly completed Big Slough-Cowskin floodway successively diverted one-third of the peak flow around the Arkansas River at Wichita gage and prevented more serious flooding in the city (U.S. Geological Survey, 1963, p. 44– 46).

June 17–25, 1965

Severe flooding occurred along the Arkansas River upstream from Great Bend during June 17–25, 1965, as a result of storms in the foothills and plains east of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and New Mexico (Snipes and others, 1974, p. D4). Because the main storm did not directly affect Kansas, local flooding was minimal, but the Arkansas River overflowed from the western State line downstream to Great Bend. Flow in the Arkansas River peaked near the Colorado-Kansas State line on June 17. The peak discharges recorded at all gaging stations on the Arkansas River and upstream from Great Bend were larger than any previously recorded and had recurrence intervals greater than 50 years. As the crest of the flood progressed downstream to its junction with the Little Arkansas River on June 25, the peak discharge had decreased to a magnitude having a recurrence interval less than 10 years. Although inundation of the flood plain caused considerable damage to urban areas, such as Garden City and Dodge City, most of the estimated $16 million in damage was to cropland (Snipes and others, 1974, table 2, p. D28).

September –October 1973

Significant flooding occurred in September and October 1973 in south-central Kansas. The flood was the result of abundant precipitation that continued for several weeks. Two USGS streamflow-gaging stations on Rattlesnake Creek recorded maximum stages and discharges for their respective periods of record on September 26 and 29 as did the gaging station on the Arkansas River near Hutchinson on September 28 (Perry and others, 2001).

June 15, 1981

On the afternoon of June 14, 1981, a series of intense thunderstorms along the forward edge of a stalled cold front produced 5 to 20 inches of precipitation in about 12 hours near Great Bend (Clement and Johnson, 1982). The storm affected about 350 square miles of tributaries to the Arkansas River upstream from Great Bend. The most extensive flooding occurred along Walnut and Dry Walnut Creeks in southwestern Barton County. Significant urban flooding was limited to the communities of Pawnee Rock and Great Bend. An estimated 3,000 people were evacuated by boat, truck, or helicopeter in Great Bend. Two-thirds of the city remained under about 4 feet of water on June 16. The Arkansas River south of Great Bend was 1 to 2 miles wide in places, and Walnut Creek had swollen to 2 miles wide (Lawrence Journal World, 1981). The resulting runoff produced peak discharges on Dry Walnut Creek on June 15 that were 1.5 to 3 times the discharge having a 100-year recurrence interval and caused about $42 million in damages. The storm was so localized that gaging stations around its perimeter recorded only nominal discharge, generally having a recurrence interval less than 2 years (Clement, 1991).

May - September 1993

Excessive precipitation fell across south-central and southeastern Kansas from May–September 1993 with more than the annual average falling during the 5-month period. May thunderstorms produced substantial precipitation that caused flooding in the lower Arkansas River Basin and its tributaries. USGS streamflow-gaging stations on the Ninnescah River near Peck and the Arkansas River at Arkansas City had notable maximum discharges. During the latter part of July, maximum peak discharges for the period of record were recorded at 10 streamflow-gaging stations, including Pawnee River near Burdett, Walnut Creek near Rush Center, Rattlesnake Creek near Zenith, Arkansas River near Maize, and the Arkansas River at Derby. Damage in the area was estimated at $6.5 million with two lives lost (Studley, 1998). Two hundred fifty-four houses were damaged, several thousand head of livestock were lost, more than 120,000 acres of crops were damaged, and nearly $1 million worth of farm machinery was destroyed (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1993).

High-water mark
USGS employees gather near the high-water mark at Wichita Water Center. (Public domain.)

1998 Halloween Flood

A large and intense fall storm slowly rolled over the eastern one-half of Kansas on Halloween 1998 leaving a 2-day deluge of more than 6 inches of rainfall over a 20- county area. Some locations received almost a foot of rain that led to flash flooding as well as historic flooding of rivers draining the region. Nearly one-third of the USGS streamflow-gaging stations in Kansas recorded water levels above flood stage during the first week of November 1998 thus documenting the largest area flooded in Kansas since the 1993 floods. Six USGS gaging stations on the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers were above National Weather Service flood stage between October 31 and November 3, 1998 (Perry and Putnam, 1998). One notable occurrence of flooding was in the Cowskin Creek area of western Wichita. Nearly 170 homes and businesses along Cowskin Creek and its tributaries reported about $4 million in flood damage from the flood (Schminke and Wolf, 2001).

High-Water Mark at Wichita Water Center

High-water marker upclose
A high-water marker at Wichita Water Center showing the water line that was surveyed by the USGS. (Public domain.)

The USGS has operated a streamgage on the Arkansas River at Wichita since 1934. The gage was located on the Douglas Avenue bridge until it was moved to its present location on the Broadway bridge in 1968. This streamgage is one of more than 170 gages that the USGS operates in Kansas. Streamflow information is used for flood forecasting, reservoir operation, water administration, bridge design, and many other uses.

As part of establishing a streamgage, the USGS researches all available information from local landowners, cities, the National Weather Service, and other agencies to determine past flooding events. According to National Weather Service records, the largest flood on the Arkansas River at Wichita occurred on May 18, 1877. To help visualize the extent of this flood, the USGS has installed a marker at the Wichita WATER Center (101 E. Pawnee) that shows the high-water line. The second largest flood on the river occurred July 8, 1904, and its level was about one-half foot lower than the 1877 flood. The 1904 flood caused more damage than the 1877 flood because Wichita was more populated in 1904. According to the Wichita Eagle, the Douglas Avenue bridge was destroyed in the early afternoon of July 7, 1904.

The largest flood since the USGS began operating the gage in 1934 occurred October 31, 1979. By this time many changes had occurred on the river. The largest change was the completion of the Big Slough-Cowskin Creek and Valley Center Floodway projects. The 1979 total streamflow volume was much larger than the 1904 flood volume however, more than 30 percent of the water was diverted around the city through the floodway and flood damages were minimal. A similar event occurred on Halloween 1998 when the combined flow of the Arkansas River and the floodway nearly reached the 1904 level. Many homes along Cowskin Creek were damaged as a result of this flood.