© 2021
background_fid.jpg
In touch with the world ... at home on the High Plains
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Anything but a River

2021Fall-bookbyte016.jpg
Steele, F. M. (Francis Marion), 1866-1936, Ks State Historical Society
/
Outlet from siphon ditch on the north side of the Arkansas River. The siphon carries water from the south side under the river itself to the north side and from there it is distributed through the farmers' ditch. circa 1900 - 1910

I’m Hannes Zacharias from Lenexa for High Plains Public Radio, Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River” by Max McCoy.

As George Frazier says “McCoy floats through a valley haunted by gold-not only in mines along the Continental Divide, but also in corporate wheat farms that bleed the Ogallala aquifer”

I’m Hannes Zacharias from Lenexa for High Plains Public Radio, Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River” by Max McCoy.

As George Frazier says “McCoy floats through a valley haunted by gold-not only in mines along the Continental Divide, but also in corporate wheat farms that bleed the Ogallala aquifer”

Bleeding is the right term for the use of the ancient waters of the Ogallala…the lifeblood for the “Great American Desert” and the lifeblood for the Arkansas river, at least through ‘dust bowl’ territory.

You see the Ogallala, in this area, has been the reservoir from which the Ark gets its’ ‘life’. It acts like a balloon of water giving flow to the river as it slices through clay and sandstone 2,200 feet in elevation from Pueblo to Dodge City.

For thousands of years, there has been enough water from the Ogallala to add to the flow from occasional rain showers to make the Ark River…well, a river.

For thousands of years The Arkansas River supported all forms of flora and fauna along its’ banks providing water for thirsty bison and massive cottonwoods supplying shade and fuel for countless indigenous people. The river was a border between numerous tribes, a line of demarcation for early explorers, and a pathway for commerce opening the high planes up for all forms of development.

All that changed with the advent water diversions. First along the Rockies for smelting silver, than to help in the making of steel, then to irrigate melons, sugar beets, and other salt brine tolerant crops. Diversions continue today siphoning Ark water through fields and back again through tail water canals, increasing the salt content to the point where the Ark River is one of the most saline rivers in the US.

Yes, irrigation has been used throughout human history for food production, but in a sustained way.

I have seen diversion dams on the Ark take not 50%, or 80%, but 100% of the water for irrigation leaving a dry river bed where only 100 feet away was a glorious flowing river…A practice that is totally allowed even though (unlike oil or gas) it is a resource that belongs to all of us. Totally within the law, but as many have said, just because something is legal doesn’t make it right.

To add to the rivers’ demise we began draining the ancient underground reservoir to irrigate more water loving (but profitable) crops like corn and alfalfa. Not valuing the relationship between the Ogallala and the river we now have drained this underground bathtub so that it is almost empty, never to be filled again.

To make ourselves feel better we blame other factors for the rivers demise. The Russian thistle and the scrubby salt cedar have been convenient scapegoats for the loss the Cottonwoods and river flow. Fact is by diverting surface water and depleting groundwater stores, we have changed the ecosystem necessary to support the native trees. It isn’t the tamarisk and similar plants that have been killing native trees and river flow…we have.

In my lifetime I have seen the 6th longest river in the US, the 45th longest river in the world literally, “dry up” for 230 miles or 16% of its total length…an entire ecosystem is being lost, never to return.

In southeastern Colorado and southwestern Kansas, people love the water the Arkansas River brings…but no one cares about the river itself.

What do you call a river that has no water? Anything but a river.

From here to wherever the river takes me…this is Hannes Zacharias in Lenexa, and you are listening to the High Plains Public Radio, Reader’s Book Club.

Tags
Fall 2021: RIVERS meandering meaning 2021 Fall ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
Stay Connected