By Brent Frazee
For the past year, the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area in central Kansas has looked more like a desert than the largest wetland complex in the interior United States.
Locked in a relentless drought, the 41,000-acre series of shallow marshes went dry in June of last year. Rain this June brought temporary relief, adding sheetwater to some of the parched pools.
But with the hottest part of summer to come, that water could evaporate quickly, leaving the Bottoms high and dry again.
“We don’t normally get a lot of rain in July and even August, so we could lose what water we gained,” said Jason Wagner, manager of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks wetlands. “When it gets 100 degrees and it’s windy, we can lose from a half-inch to an inch of water a day through evaporation.
“So, we have a long way to go.”
For those who are accustomed to seeing tens of thousands of acres of shallow water at Cheyenne Bottoms, the scene today is a stark reminder of how devastating a drought can be.
When I visited the Bottoms in early May, there was little water, except for a few puddles, to be seen. Dry, cracked soil stretched forever in the sprawling marshes often teeming with life.
In the heart of fall, those wetlands are breathtaking, with huge flocks of ducks and geese. Some years, more than 1 million waterfowl can be found at Cheyenne Bottoms and the nearby Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
Now, they are breathtaking in another way.
It isn’t the first time the Bottoms have gone dry. As recently as 2018, a drought sucked the water out of the Bottoms and the situation looked dismal for the upcoming hunting season. Then central Kansas got heavy rains over Labor Day weekend and the situation turned around almost overnight.
“Some areas got up to five inches of rain, and we picked up a lot of runoff,” Wagner said. “It was perfect timing. The water flooded some of the moist-soil vegetation that had grown, and it set the table for the ducks and geese that would be migrating in.
“We ended up attracting a lot of birds, and we had a good hunting season.”
Wagner is hoping for a repeat this year.
“We rely completely on runoff,” Wagner said. “We aren’t able to use groundwater pumps out here.
“Our main sources of water are Wet Walnut Creek and the Arkansas River. When it’s as dry as it has been, they’re not bringing in much water.”
Wagner saw a striking example of how vital that water is to Cheyenne Bottoms during timely rains in June.
“When we got water from Wet Walnut Creek, we had ducks show up within hours,” he said. “It was amazing.”
Drought is nothing new at the Bottoms. Situated in arid central Kansas, the shallow marshes are susceptible to hot, windy summers.
About every 10 years, Wagner said, the Bottoms deal with drought conditions. But they always bounce back, and provide excellent hunting and bird-watching.
The dry conditions completely wiped out the 2022-2023 waterfowl hunting season. But Wagner still holds out hope for this year.
During this dry spell, Wagner and his crew have worked to improve hunting conditions once the water returns.
The main emphasis has been on removing cattails in pools that were completely choked with them. Wildlife and Parks also has rebuilt about 100 hunting blinds and provide islands for birds that like those highland areas in marshes.
The table is set. Even in the dry conditions, the moist-soil vegetation that some species of ducks feast on has been growing. And with the habitat work that has been done, there will be greater hunter access in some pools.
Now it just has to rain.