Rain and flooding “seriously affected” more than half of Kansas’ 28 state parks, and some parks on the state’s eastern half remain closed or partially closed.
It’s premature, said Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Secretary Brad Loveless, to quantify the financial hit to the parks until the water recedes and campsite cancellation refunds become clearer. In a month or two, he said, they will have a better handle on lost revenue and the cost of repairs and renovation.
Already, the KDWPT's Park Fee Fund is down for April and May by about $100,000, reflecting a loss in entrance fees and campsite fees, and income from cabin rentals is down by $30,000 for those two months compared to a year ago.
Those figures don’t include all the refunds the department has been processing, “which is significant in June,” according to Ron Kaufman, director of information for the agency.
The department also will lose revenues from marina concessions and from the Country Stampede’s move from Tuttle Creek State Park to Topeka’s Heartland Motorsports Park.
Cheney State Park manager Mike Satterlee has tracked the revenue drop there, and he said Tuesday that Cheney is about $50,000 short from a year ago. “Substantial,” he said.
The KDWPT has not asked the state for special assistance. Parks are managing cleanup with staff and regular seasonal workers.
“We will need state assistance for repairing damages and for cash flow if revenues drop significantly,” Kaufman said in a written response to The News.
Loveless is hopeful they’ll receive aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but that’s a question and there are delays, he said. Parks are documenting the impact, but FEMA aid is “a big unknown,” Loveless said.
“Double whammy” is a frequently used phrase by Kaufman and by state park managers.
Parks are losing potential revenues by the day, while damages to be repaired become more apparent.
The KDWPT relies chiefly on entrance permits, campsite and cabin rental fees and marina concessions to fund state parks. Parks also benefit from Kansas Lottery-generated dollars and can obtain federal grants for projects, but they don’t receive money from the state general fund. Also, the sale of hunting, fishing and fur harvesting licenses and permits cannot be spent for state park operations or maintenance and repairs, Kaufman said.
Last year’s estimate for state park visitation reached nearly 6.9 million people. The Park Fee Fund and Cabin Fund, combined, generated more than $10.5 million for the state fiscal year.
A number of state parks canceled campsite reservations for Memorial Day weekend due to high water. That is one of the top three periods for most parks. The Fourth of July is another peak time, and some parks will have certain campsites unavailable then, too.
Besides the loss of revenue, parks face the expense of repairs.
“The water is so deep, we don’t know what we’re going to be dealing with,” said Wichita-based regional supervisor Alan Stark.
Of the parks Kaufman said “have been seriously affected by flooding and heavy rains,” those that remained closed as of Thursday were Kanopolis State Park, near the state’s center, and Elk City State Park, in the southeast.
Parks that were open but with some facilities closed as of Thursday were: Cheney, Cross Timbers, Fall River, Clinton, Pomona, Eisenhower, Tuttle Creek, Milford, Wilson, Hillsdale, Lovewell, Perry, Glen Elder, Webster and El Dorado — which boasts the highest visitation annually of all state parks, exceeding an estimated 1 million people last year.
Updates on the status of parks can be found on the department’s website at http://www.ksoutdoors.com/State-Parks/State-Park-Alerts/.
Water levels set records this spring in some but not all of the state parks experiencing flooding.
Cheney, El Dorado, Cross Timbers, Elk City and Fall River all registered new highs for example, Stark said, but Milford, Tuttle Creek and Wilson did not exceed 1993 flood levels.
Kanopolis Reservoir established its third-highest level this spring, said Kanopolis park manager Jason Sunderland. It was higher in 1993, he said, and still higher in the 1950s.
Reservoirs have a conservation pool level that is regarded as the normal level. They also are designed to hold more water for a flood pool.
At Cheney Reservoir, the normal elevation level is approximately 1,421 feet and the flood pool limit is 1,429 feet. Water elevation peaked at 1,430.25 feet this spring, according to staff.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered releases from inundated reservoirs. Water releases at Cheney and some other reservoirs continue but are controlled because of the effect on areas downstream.
The march back to normal is measured in feet.
At Perry Reservoir, northeast of Topeka, the elevation level on June 4 was about 917.7 feet. A week later, on Tuesday, it stood at 916.2 feet, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data. That’s below Perry’s flood pool limit of about 920 feet, but above the normal level of about 891 feet.
The peak at Perry this year was 921.64 feet — breaking the 1993 record of 920.93 feet, according to Perry State Park manager Michelle Campbell.
“It did close us down,” she said. “We’re partially open now,” she said, but “portions are very fragile right now,” she said.
Appearances are deceiving at Perry State Park.
“We’re kind of down in a valley,” Campbell said, and power lines are underground. Water rose above transformer huts or junction boxes, and power was shut off to the entire park.
People saw campgrounds that are “high and dry,” she said, but without power, the park was not able to pump sewage to lagoons, thwarting an earlier reopening.
The rising waters posed different challenges at the various state parks.
At Elk City State Park, it floods in two directions and just traveling by road to the site was impeded, regional supervisor Stark said. Power remained out there as of Thursday.
On Memorial Day, Kanopolis State Park crews started relocating about 68 mobile homes to safer ground. They completed the task in about four days.
“Some of them would have been in the water, but not all of them,” Kanopolis’ Sunderland said. A lot of mobile homes had to be moved before those closest to the lake could come out, he said.
Alternative transportation was provided at Kanopolis after a low road flooded. A small boat and a low rope stretched above so the boater could hold on to the rope and maneuver across enabled people to park cars on one side and reach their homes — some used seasonally, others year-round — on the other side.
“Right now, we’re officially closed to the 24th,” Sunderland said of Kanopolis. “I’ve been extending it a week at a time,” he said. The plan is to be open ahead of July 4, but not all areas will be available, he said.
At Hillsdale State Park, a draw for metro Kansas City residents, water started rising in April. Eventually, its reservoir would establish a record level.
“It hit us hard,” said Hillsdale State Park manager Gary Lucas.
Staff at Hillsdale and other parks removed components from electrical boxes before flooding.
Such proactive efforts at parks impressed Loveless.
“They just had checklists and they shared information,” he said. They pumped wastewater out, disconnected electric service and moved components, in some cases moved cabins, relocated or chained picnic tables, barricaded roads — “just one thing after another,” Loveless said.
“That would make it even tougher if we had to hire contractors,” he said. “These people displayed to me a lot of expertise,” he said, and a “can-do attitude.”
“They’re great stewards of the resources they have,” Loveless said. “They make things happen on a shoestring.”
“This is showtime for us,” said Hillsdale’s Lucas of lake season. ”We like nothing better than to provide these facilities for the people who come visit us.”
Hillsdale does not have a fireworks display on July 4, and Father’s Day weekend can be just as big as Memorial Day weekend, and both can see bigger crowds than Independence Day, Lucas said.
The reservoir’s normal level is 917 feet, and it needs to drop another 12 and a half feet to return to normal. “They are not releasing any major amount,” Lucas said.
“I’m not blaming the Corps of Engineers,” Lucas emphasized. As for the reservoirs, he said, they “are doing their job, which is flood control.” It just makes it difficult for people on vacations, he said.
They’ve referred people to Clinton State Park, also affected by water but less so than Pomona State Park or Eisenhower State Park, he said.
Parks are contacting those with campsite reservations, offering to reschedule or to provide a gift card or a refund.
“We will try to schedule far out,” Lucas said, asking people if they would think about moving their visit to August, September or October.
Weekdays are slow at state parks, but on June 11, even the mowing crew from Hutchinson Correctional Facility was limited in regard to which areas could be mowed at Cheney State Park, located in Reno and Kingman counties.
People who have engines — such as motorboaters and jet skiers — don’t like this, said Mark Diskin, of Wichita, as he prepared to launch a kayak with fishing poles on board. His bigger hazard was wind.
Nearby, Allyn Lamb, also of Wichita, a charter member of the Cheney-based Ninnescah Sailing Association that dates back to 1965, checked out the activity center, The Afterdeck.
Property manager Patrick Adams informed Lamb they would lose some of the 25 trees transplanted this spring because of being underwater so long.
“Oh no, oh what a shame,” Lamb said.
The tentative plan is to raise money again and replace the trees in 2020. Meanwhile, fans whirred in the Afterdeck’s basement, where 3 feet of water had flowed in despite floodgates erected in front of closed overhead doors.
“They moved the water closer to us,” said Chad Harms, of Wichita, working on his motorboat at his campsite at Cheney. He came out several days before and had not put the boat in the water yet. Partly, it was because of the cool weather. Also, he had concerns about floating logs and debris. Boaters have been advised to stay in the center, he said.
At O’Brien’s Marina at Cheney, Kevin and Stephanie O’Brien own the business, but business is light. “I have no fuel right now,” Kevin O’Brien said. He said he’s thinking about making T-shirts to sell: “I didn’t drown in the flood in 2019.”
Cleanup and restoration will take months.
Debris must be hauled, and Kanopolis’ Sunderland said trash must be pulled out before debris can be burned or disposed. At Hillsdale, sand must be brought in to restore its beach.
Water heaters for showers and electrical components must be re-installed. “For some reason, it comes out a whole lot faster than when it goes in,” said Stark.
Boat ramps and docks that have been underwater will require repairs, and structures will have to be rebuilt. Some cabin flooring was damaged, but Loveless didn't know of any cabins that were destroyed. Fallen trees will have to be cut and removed. Big rocks positioned around campsites — such as at El Dorado State Park — will have to be moved back, Stark said.
"Hundreds of acres of grass" will have to be replanted, and "mountains of debris removed," Kaufman said.
The water’s wave action is damaging to roads, and Stark said he’s seen it capable of rolling up asphalt. If not allowed to dry before traffic returns, a roadbed under asphalt will cause the road to shift, he said.
"We have a small, in-house engineering staff, as well as engineering consultants available to us to help design and oversee major repairs. Contractors may be used as necessary," Kaufman said.
Park officials mentioned the smell, too. “It’s going to smell like a minnow bucket,” said Hillsdale’s Lucas.
There’s been a rain chance every weekend, said Cheney’s Satterlee, but over the June 8-9 weekend, every campsite with utilities at Cheney was filled. "People are starting to come back out,” he said.
“We’ve had some people cancel (for July 4) just because, even if we’re open, there might not be that much opportunity,” Kanopolis’ Sunderland said, other than to sit at the campsite. Or, he said, it could be the complete opposite and it could be a big Fourth of July there. “People will want to camp no matter what,” Sunderland said.
“As the water levels come down, we’re working very hard to make areas available again. That’s our top priority,” said Loveless.
He points out that state parks in western Kansas that had suffered from lack of rain saw their lakes rise but not flood, and they are in “great shape.”
“We encourage people to use this as an opportunity to go somewhere where you haven’t been before,” Loveless said.