Arkansas River Riparian Wetlands


Lori Bird & Jake Stevenson

A Student Presentation from
Emporia State University
Earth Science Department

This webpage project was created in partial completion for the Wetland Environments course in spring of 2007 at Emporia State University.


When considering Kansas wetlands, riparian wetlands associated with Kansas rivers are often completely overlooked. This neglect is perhaps caused by of the existences of two RAMSAR wetlands in Kansas - Cheyenne Bottoms and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge Area. However, with the Clean Water Act, the roles of the riparian wetlands have taken a prominent place in the minds of government and the public. The existence of these two world famous wildlife refuges, as well as the smaller McPherson Wetlands, rely, in part, on the health of the riparian areas associated with the Arkansas River Basin. This project explores current threats to riparian wetlands and ongoing restoration projects associated with the Lower Arkansas River Basin.

Table of Contents


Headwaters for the Arkansas River are found in central Colorado. It flows southeastward across Kansas and crosses the Kansas-Oklahoma border in Cowley county. The Arkansas River is commonly divided into the Upper and Lower watersheds. The Lower Arkansas River Watershed begins with the confluence of Rattlesnake Creek in southwestern Rice County. The major tributaries of the Lower Arkansas River are: Rattlesnake Creek, Cow Creek, Little Arkansas River, Ninnescah River and Slate Creek.

Lower Arkansas Watershed Map (taken from KAWS)

Agriculture (both farming and ranching) and grasslands are the major uses of the land drained by the Lower Arkansas River watershed. Industrial zones are associated with the metropolitan areas in Newton, Hutchinson and Wichita. There has been a general trend over the years of urban land use replacing rural as the urban populations grow. These increases in population and industry have created a growing need for water and water treatment solutions. It has also awakened an increasing concern over the quality and quantity of water available to fill all the needs (residential, agricultural, wildlife, recreational, industrial) and ensure the water rights of adjoining states. Riparian zones and wetlands exist on the edges of the streams, rivers, behind levees and oxbows and flood plains. ( They are the transitional zones between the aquatic and upland area. Wetlands have hydric soils that are usually wet or have standing water cover. Riparian zones are identified by their vegetation, soils, hydrology and topography, which are distinguishable from upland areas. Riparian areas and wetlands are vital to the water quality and supply. These zones provide erosion control, act as sediment and contaminant sinks, offer wildlife habitats, aid in water purification, as well as provide recreational opportunities and beauty. (Kansas Water Plan) Unfortunately, the vital role riparian and wetland areas provide has not always been recognized or valued. The Kansas Department of Wildlife estimates that about half of the total wetlands in this state have been lost since the late 1700s. This amounts to over 400,000 acres. Riparian acres have been lost to channelization and streamside modification by various means.

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Threats to Riparian Wetlands

A major threat to existing riparian wetlands is the lack of water. Climates are inherently variable, and most riparian zones are resilient to fluctuating water levels. Colorado and Kansas have disagreed for years about the water rights to the Arkansas River. When the John Martin Reservoir was built, Colorado agreed to release 40% of the water for use in Kansas. Even with the released water from Colorado, the Arkansas River flow in Kansas has been degraded.

A primary drain on the river has been increased irrigation. Water has been diverted from the watershed and has been pumped from the groundwater supply to irrigated crops. This loss of water coupled with drought has caused the base flow of water to all but disappear west of Great Bend. In the Lower Arkansas River watershed, the decreased flow has caused a buildup of sedimentation in the riparian wetlands. Other threats to riparian areas are actual physical barriers that affect the hydrology. Some barriers include areas where the water flow is diverted by channels, levees, roads, pipelines, ditches, residential and industrial areas. Some of these barriers can literally leave wetland areas high and dry. While other obstacles cause the water to pool and alter the natural drainage patterns. These changes in the hydrology of the streams can greatly affect the wildlife that inhabits them. The low flows and sediments have resulted in a decline in the native fish and shellfish as well as macro invertebrates. Both channelization and low water flow can result in bank erosion, especially when the wetland vegetation, which helps retain the soil, can no longer thrive in the dry areas.

Local land use practices also take a toll on the riparian areas along the Lower Arkansas Watershed. Cattle grazing alongside the rivers often destroy the riparian areas by trampling the riverbanks and compacting the soils - as well as the vegetation. Livestock, especially those in containment pens, contaminate the stream with their waste. Cattle production and dairies are a major industry in Reno County. Fecal Cloriform bacteria levels in the Lower Arkansas River watershed are so great that the Kansas Water Plan has set total maximum daily levels (TMDL's) for impaired waters as required in the Clean Water Act. These TMDL are goals the state is required to meet as they work on restoring the watershed.

Farming practices can also lead to the impairment of the Lower Arkansas River watershed. Herbicide runoff from cropland is being monitored at various points in the watershed. High levels of atrazine have been measured and TMDL's set. These chemicals are long lasting and harm the native vegetation - destroying the natural filters even as they work. Fertilizers also contaminate these wetland zones. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorous cause plant eutrophication and a loss of dissolved oxygen. The loss of oxygen will diversely effect the macroinvertebrate populations.

A natural hazard identified in the Lower Arkansas River Watershed is the chloride levels in the water. The chloride concentration is a result of the Permian salt deposits. In fact, the Rattlesnake Creek is a saline stream, which feeds the Quivira salt marshes. However, with decreased water flows and increased pumping, these chloride levels are remaining high as they move downstream. These changes in the chloride content of the Lower Arkansas River can damage the flora and fauna in the adjoining riparian wetlands. In addition, because wetlands are a source of recharge for aquifers and groundwater, these contaminants can find their way into the water supply.

Impaired Water Priority (taken from KDWP)

Additionally, as the urban areas of this watershed grow, they place an increasing demand on the water supply and increase the amount of effluent released from treatment plants.

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Restoration and Remediation

Although the state of Kansas and federal government are concerned about the health of the riparian wetlands, legislative environmental controls are not easily affected. This is because most of the riparian wetlands are located on private land. The goals of restoring the riparian can be accomplished by education, cooperative efforts and incentives. Several responsible entities have set up programs to aid in the restoration of these wetlands. The Kansas Water Office (KWO) developed the Kansas Priority Wetlands and Riparian Areas Protection and Restoration Implementation Plan in September 2003. This plan encourages public and private entities to begin restoration efforts on behalf of the riparian wetlands. They provide funds and technical resources to aid landowners in the efforts to improve the riparian zones.

EPA Five Star Restoration Grants

The federal government is encouraging riparian wetland restoration and education with its Five Star Grants for Wetland Restoration. The City of Derby and its affiliated partners recently received a grant of $10,000. They developed a targeted restoration project on the Arkansas River. This project would restore stream banks currently eroding due to the removal of a concrete bridge and educate the public about the importance of riparian protection.

Basic Chemicals Company, LLC, in Wichita also received a $10,000 grant. They will augment educational programs at the Prairie Wetland Conservation Area. The grant provides funds for spotting scopes, microscopes, nets, soil coring tools and tree coring tools to aid in the exploration of the wetlands area using different methods. In addition, volunteers will plant trees and selectively place rocks at targeted locations on three wetland areas to enrich aquatic and terrestrial flora and fauna. Five Star Restoration Program

Cowskin Water Treatment Plant and Nature Center

Local governments have also incorporated wetlands restoration techniques in their long term facility planning. The City of Wichita and Sedgwick County adopted an award winning strategy when faced with a need to expand their water and waste treatment facilities. The Cowskin Water Quality Reclamation Facility was designed to mitigate the effects of its effluent release into the local watershed. In addition, a long with 25 acres devoted to plant facilities, the project includes an additional 124 acres to wetland restoration and education as well as recreational activities. Cowskin Creek Water Treatment Plant


WRAPS Projects (taken from Kansas Water Office)

The Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) is a program that coordinates watershed planning, management and protection across the state. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) began the WRAPS program. All state agencies, the Kansas Water Authority, the Governor's sub-cabinet on natural resource issues, plus Kansas State University are utilizing this program to identify problems and issues within local watersheds. WRAPS can aid in developing action plans and identifying technical and financial resources to address those issues. Many TMDL areas (total maximum daily load) fall within a WRAPS boundary.

Departments utilizing the WRAPS program include the Kansas Rural Center. The Rural Center is encouraging farmers to develop a plant under its Clean Water Farms Project. It will provide $5000.00 incentives to encourage watershed friendly practices which include: riparian buffer strips, streamside stabilization techniques, and livestock management options that reduce waste runoff.

Several farmers along with state technical advisors and KDHE funding have created a WRAPS strategy for the Little Arkansas River Watershed. This report studies the Little River Watershed, its lands use and sources of pollution in depth. Included are high, medium and low priority goals. Its priority goals include reducing the level of atrazine, fecal cloriform bacteria sediments and nutrient levels in the Little Arkansas River shed. The report identifies best management practices (BMP) to limit the TMDL levels and restore the watershed and wetlands associated with the Little Arkansas River. It also quantifies the cost of implementing the BMPs in Harvey, Sedgwick and McPherson counties and outlines funding sources and contact. This document is an important step in the restoration of the riparian wetlands associated with the Little Arkansas River.

Little Arkansas Watershed Map (taken from KDHE)

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Through a growing awareness of their value, many citizens, groups and government agencies are combining efforts to restore and preserve these important wetlands. Citizens groups including the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams (KAWS) and the Arkansas River Coalition are investing their time to educate others on the vital role these wetlands play. Cities like Derby and Wichita are investing in facilities to mitigate their effects. The agriculture industry is employing conservation and farming techniques like no-till and streamside buffers to reduce their impact on these ecosystems. By implementing incentives to restore streamside wetland areas, control animal waste runoff and chemical runoff, and ensure appropriate effluent treatment, Kansas citizens, private landowners and the state government can start the healing process to restore the riparian wetlands to a healthier status.

However, the water supply issue is still the most prominent threat to the riparian wetland environment. For without water, there is no wetland. Complete restoration of these systems would require massive changes to water allocation rights and extensive legal battles. A far more achievable approach would be to establish "legally binding minimum stream flows, the expansion of hatchery restocking programs for native fish and shellfish (e.g., Barnhart 1999), the selective removal of lowhead dams and other barriers to fish migration, the installation of fish ladders and elevators on larger dams, and other related management initiatives all in addition to concurrent improvements in agricultural practices." (Angelo, 2002)

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Adamus et. al., 2002. Indicators for Monitoring Biloglical Integrity of Inland Freshwater Wetlands


EPA 1996. Protecting Natural Wetlands: A Guide to Stormwater Best Management Practices


Kansas Rural Center

Kansas Department of Health and Environment

Kansas Department of Health and Environment

Kansas Department of Health and Environment

Kansas Department of Health and Environment

Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks

Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams

Kansas Water Office

Kansas Water Office

Kansas Water Office

City of Wichita Water Quality Reclamation Facility

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Related Links

Emporia State University Earth Science at ESU
Wetland Environments Student Projects

This webpage was designed for Wetland Environments
Instructor: Dr. James S. Aber of Emporia State University
For questions or comments contact Lori Bird or Jake Stevenson
Created on April 29, 2007.