On July 1, the water level at Tuttle Creek was nearly three feet about the normal 1,075 foot level, so the 2,000 foot outflow rate – about twice normal – looked both logical and consequence-free.
Following a virtually rainfall-free month, the lake level had fallen five feet, and a reduced 1,100 cubic feet per second outflow was beginning to impact the lake’s recreational users.
Another two-foot drop during August prompted alarms that were only partly assuaged by the Corps’ decision to reduce outflow to just 400 cfs.
It’s now October, the lake’s elevation is seven feet below normal, boat docks lead only to dry land, and the commercial and recreational concerns are intensified.
“I’ve seen Tuttle Creek go up and down,” said Kathy O’Malley, who owns Wildcat Marina with her husband, John “ I’ve never seen anything like this. We’re worried. We’re really worried.”
Worried enough that the O’Malleys have shut down their marina for the season because the reduced lake levels had slowed recreational business below a point where it made sense to stay open. They would normally stay open until mid-October.
Users of Perry and Milford reservoirs are also expressing concern, and state officials have begun to join them.
“They have taken down our (lake levels) 3 foot, maybe 6 foot, for what we deem a limited benefit,” said Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office. “You would be hard-pressed to even find navigation advocates that could look you straight in the eye and say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good use of water.’ “
“For any of these lakes, 7 or 8 feet is really bad,” O’Malley said. “Our docks are sitting on mud.” She said Corps officials have indicated they expect the lake level to fall to about 1,064.5 feet.
The summer drawdown was conducted to facilitate barge traffic on the Missouri River, a function considered to be central to the function of the eastern Kansas dams. Downstream navigation, along with flood control and recreation, remains a core function of the dams even though the Star reported Sunday that only about 200 barges have traveled the Missouri River so far this year, less than a tenth of what once used the channel. By contrast, about 40,000 barges go by St. Louis most years on the Mississippi River, the Star reported.
Numerous boat docks and ramps are above water along Tuttle Creek State Lake now, and Milford State Park has shut down several boat ramps. Sources there say a new houseboat dock has been bent from sitting on rocks.
“A lot of guys don’t have any place to get their boat on the lake to go fishing,” said Tony Reitz, Milford park manager.
The Army Corps of Engineers said it had no choice but to lower the three lakes in July because the federal agency is required by Congress to keep the Missouri River high enough for the barges to navigate, and the drought had caused levels to drop too far. The corps says the congressional mandate requires the corps to release enough water for commercial barge traffic from April 1 to Dec. 1 — regardless of how many barges are on the river.
“We don’t have the option to decide not to do it one year or other years because of drought,” said Jody Farhat, the Corps’ chief water manager for the Missouri River.