Kansas faces weather extremes - drought to deluge

Associated Press

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (AP) — While extreme weather is a fact of life in Kansas, few years have provided such a contrast between too much and too little water.

Much of western Kansas from the Colorado border to the middle part of the state struggles through a prolonged drought that began more than a year ago. Fields planted with wheat are faltering as spotty rains have provided little to no moisture. Yields are likely to fall short of average.

In the eastern part of the state, communities are bracing for what forecasters are expecting to be historic levels along the Missouri River caused by heavy rains and snowmelt in Montana and the Dakotas. By next week, areas along the river could see a crest of 27 to 33 feet, well above flood stage.

"The whole central region of the country is unique that we are arid in the west and we have the humidity and precipitation in the east," said Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office. "There's kind of a dividing line, and U.S. 81 seems to be that dividing line."

Weather patterns for the past year have made those extremes more pronounced. The National Weather Service says a La Nina over the Pacific Ocean has kept western Kansas drier than normal, making the drought more pronounced. Meanwhile, moisture from the Gulf of Mexico has moved north, causing rains over much of the Missouri and Mississippi river systems.

If the summer months are wet, as some models suggest, eastern Kansas could continue to see adequate rains, which compounds the flooding. More water will cause runoff, filling already full reservoirs along the Kansas River, a tributary of the Missouri. With flood gates closed, Streeter said the lakes will rise and cause localized flooding.

Communities along the Missouri have been forced to close their flood gates, too. Angee Morgan, deputy director of the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, said towns like Elwood could face flooding behind their levee if heavy rains fall and the water can't be channeled to the river, as designed.

On the other extreme, Gov. Sam Brownback is seeking federal disaster declaration for 46 counties affected by the drought. Conditions continue to deteriorate across the southern portion of Kansas.

The roots of the Vulgamore family run deep in the Shallow Water area of western Kansas. Brian Vulgamore, 35, and his family have been farming between Scott City and Garden City for nearly 100 years.

Last week, Vulgamore was part of a water tour that included the rushing water along the Kansas River, a sight seldom seen in the arid west. Vulgamore said it would be nice to take some of the water back home.

"When you continuously see all this flooding going on, we realize that in order to get our normal rainfall that we're going to have some severe weather to get it," Vulgamore said. "That's a concern of mine."

Farmers in western Kansas will harvest a crop, but Vulgamore said the yields won't be what they have in the past. Some areas have had rain, but most have had less than half of normal over the past year. Watching the radar and hearing the prospects for moisture is a blessing and curse when storms fail to materialize.

"Psychologically, I think we would be better off not knowing," Vulgamore said.

Several hundred miles away, Sherman Army Airfield at Fort Leavenworth is nearly a ghost town ahead of the rising water.

Crews waited until a jet carrying Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey left the field Friday morning before removing the final pieces of equipment, including fire extinguishers and other gear.

The rest of the post, established in 1827, is on higher bluffs overlooking the river and is unlikely to see any flooding affects. Trustees from the military prisons will be sandbagging an area north of the runway where the levee meets the railroad tracks. The area typically seeps water, which then travels south across the airfield and begins collecting.

On Friday, crews moved aircraft out of the hangar, across railroad tracks and onto higher ground. A gray line 12 feet high on the hangar walls indicate where the water rose in 1993. Predictions are for the river to crest between 27 and 33 feet, which would flood the airfield again and get into the hangar.

"I guess we would need another shade of gray to mark that one," said Darren Benson, airfield operations manager.

Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, said while communities in the east are watching how much water comes down from the north, farmers out west are watching how much water they pull from below to sustain withering crops. Much of that region lacks the surface water to draw upon for irrigation and must take it from aquifers.

Streeter said recent rains in northeast Kansas along the Kansas River have compounded management ahead of the Missouri's rise. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had planned to draw down water at three reservoirs then shut off releases to reduce the amount of water flowing in the Kansas River, a tributary of the Missouri.

However, as those spillways close, recent heavy rains have pushed the levels of Milford, Perry and Tuttle lakes as much as 10 feet above ideal levels. Additional rain could force the closing of boat ramps, campgrounds and other recreational levels.

"I hate to say that we don't want it to rain, but I hope we don't see any big rains in the Kansas basin," Streeter said. "I don't think we are going to have any opportunity to release from our reservoirs."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.