The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism stands to lose millions of dollars after record spring rains led to park closures, property damage and washed-out roads.
In most of Kansas, the rain started in early spring and didn’t stop until the end of June. High water levels at reservoirs (where most state parks are located) inundated campgrounds, boat docks and roads.
“We’re not talking about for a week,” Parks Director Linda Lanterman said. “We’re talking six weeks, eight weeks ... so the damage is significant until you can get that water down.”
The timing couldn’t have been worse for Kansas state parks, which depend upon revenue during what Lanterman calls the “Million-Dollar Months” — May, June, July and August — to stay afloat for the rest of the year.
But state parks failed to reach $1 million in each of those months this year. In May, the parks brought in $981,586 compared with $1,065,033 in 2018. The dropoff was even more severe in June, when revenue was $568,743 compared with $1,563,780 in 2018.
Understanding how important these months were, several parks managers tried to stay open until campgrounds were inaccessible. Lanterman said she had to tell a few parks they had to close earlier before floodwaters made it impossible to remove cabins and other equipment.
While parts of a few state parks in eastern Kansas (Perry and Milford) are still flooded, preventing the department from fully assessing the damage, most opened up by mid-July. With the rains gone, the park system made more than $1 million in both July and August from boaters and campers.
“Who would have guessed?” Lanterman said. “Not me.”
But there’s still the issue of repairing damage: Floodwaters have cracked boat docks, washed away gravel from roads, filled restrooms with silt and removed chunks of land underneath concrete campsites and picnic table pads.
The flooding is also going to kill a lot of trees in the state parks.
Dozens of acres of trees have been underwater for months, which means the roots aren’t able to get the oxygen they need.
“We can see clearly they are starting to decline and go downhill,” said Ryan Armbrust, a state forest health specialist with the Kansas Forest Service.
When trees die, especially at this scale, it can have a major impact on the local ecosystem. Armbrust said trees provide shade and homes for animals, and also reduce air pollution. That won’t come back until the next generation of trees.
He’s also worried about what will grow back in place of the lost trees.
“What forest regrows in that area may not necessarily be as functional or as high-quality as what was there before,” he said.
Instead of oak and hickory regrowing (those higher-quality trees), it might be a lot of elms or hackberry. At worst, invasive species such as bush honeysuckle will take advantage of the opportunity to spread, Armbrust said.
It’s not just trees around rivers and lakes either. Armbrust said he expects to get plenty of calls next spring from people with windbreaks on their property, wondering why they don’t look so good.
“Even though the month of May is obviously behind us,” Armbrust said. “We’re still going to be having impacts from that flood event for some time.”
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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