This year’s drought has affected more than just the local farming community; it has impacted the local boating community as well. As levels drop at Tuttle Creek Lake, tree stumps creep closer to the surface and waterlines recede, creating hazards for sailors. In Tuttle Cove, home of the Blue Valley Yacht Club, naked trees with white lines marking where the water once buried them cluster along the new shoreline and new stumps rise up out of the water.
“No leaves, no branches, just stumps sticking up out of the water,” said Henry Otto, a club member. “It’s kind of like an artist’s bizarre rendering of nuclear winter, or something other-worldly.”
He said at least one club member has torn a rudder on the stumps, and others may have damaged their hulls. He said the U.S. Corps of Engineers never cut the stumps down when the lake was filled. That means that as water levels lower, the stumps become underwater hazards .
As the leader of the youth sailing group, Otto said he has had to cut activities short this year due to the stumps. He normally holds activities from August through September with the Boy Scouts and Opti-Pram Sailing, a program designed to teach 7- to 13-year olds how to sail. This year those activities halted in mid-August.
“I feared they would hit the stumps,” Otto said. “If they capsize the boats, they could impale themselves in the shallows.”
Otto said the club’s members have also had trouble with their mooring balls getting tangled in the underwater stumps. He said the balls must float freely so that when the wind shifts, the boats attached to them can shift. Otherwise, the wind will cause the water to beat the boats into the trees or capsize them.
As a result, yachting club members have had to pull their boats out of the water earlier than usual.
“I usually pull mine after Thanksgiving, but I will probably pull mine this weekend,” Otto said.
The problem is that th e low water prevents club members from using the ramps to pull the boats out of the water. Like many other docks around the lake, the club’s dock now stands about 12 feet from the water’s edge in a bare wasteland of mud and muck.
“If we take our boats out at other ramps, we have to manhandle the masts down, which takes about four or five people to take one down,” Otto said.
At the current lake levels, there are only two usable ramps — both built by the Corps. One stands directly across the cove from the club, but there is no apparatus to help lower the masts. The second is near the marina, and other hazards present problems there. Otto said the other problem with taking the sailboats out at other docks involves watching for power lines that can interfere with 30-foot masts. He said there are no power lines on the club’s side of the cove, where they have a generator.
Like other club members, Otto is a sailor at heart. He said he has been sailing since he was a teenager—about 30 years—and has waited until the last possible moment to pull his boat from the water.
“The local office warned us of this,” Otto said. “They have done a good job at keeping us abreast of the situation.”
While the low lake levels are unusual, they are not unheard of. Otto said the lake hasn’t been this low for about 10 years. Brian McNulty, operations manager for the corps, said the lowest level was Jan. 4, 1967, when the level dropped to 1060.82. The current lake levels are about 1065, and dropping with each day that passes without sufficient rain.
As a precaution, local Corps representatives have been warning potential boaters to “boat at own risk” due to the stumps and other hazards lurking just beneath the surface of the water.
“At normal lake levels, they are deeper, but with the lowering of the lake, a lot more of these types of hazards are showing up,” McNulty said.
He said the Corps has no plans to cut down the stumps as water levels creep down. That’s out of the question not only due to the “sheer number,” but also because when levels are up, the stumps provide great habitat for the fish. .
McNulty said that while he understood the lake levels were an inconvenience, the reservoir was built for the purpose of keeping the flow of the river up during a drought.
“One of the purposes is to provide water in times of drought,” McNulty said. “We are supplementing the flow of the river.”
McNulty said without the release of 900 cubic feet per second, the flow downriver would be only 100 cubic feet per second, instead of the 1,000 cubic feet per second just upstream from Topeka. In that circumstance, Topekans would not have any water to speak of.
The lowering of the lake has caused problems for the Corps as well. McNulty said park rangers are having problems with people driving vehicles — including ATVs —along the hundreds of acres of exposed shoreline in violation of laws.
The local yachting club and park rangers are not the only ones suffering from the lake levels dropping. Pat Sweeney, head coach of the Kansas State University rowing team, said they have had problems as well.
“We boat out of a cove,” Sweeney said. “And that cove is disappearing. It’s new territory each time we go out.”
Sweeney said that as the waterline recedes, the team has moved its mobile dock farther and farther out into the lake. As a result, the water becomes rougher, which leads to less practice time when winds pick up. He said it is only a matter of time before the team must cut practice short.
“We have been managing to get out there,” Sweeney said. “We have been resourceful.”
In the coves, too, the stumps create obstacles. Sweeney said the situation is annoying for regulars, but it could be dangerous for anyone who does not know the lake and where the stumps are.
“Obviously, if it continues to drop, we will have to stop,” Sweeney said. “It is just annoying at this point.”