Remnants of rain

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Water levels descend after a wet summer on Aug. 25, 2015. (Emily Starkey | The Collegian)

As students return to Manhattan from summer vacation, many will likely flood into Tuttle Creek State Park looking to engage in some late summer outdoor recreation. However, some may find their favorite spots partially closed.

Topeka and the surrounding areas experienced a particularly rainy summer this year, according to data provided by Emily Heller, meteorologist at the National Weather Service station in Topeka.

“This has been a wetter summer than normal,” Heller said. “We’ve just been stuck in some patterns that were conducive to storms coming into the area. We had a particularly wet August; normally August is when things slow down.”

One such pattern has been the El Niño, or the “warm phase” of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation cycle, which is an irregularly occurring series of oceanic climatic changes, according to the National Ocean Service. Heller said these typically last nine to 12 months and occur approximately every two to seven years.

Steve Prockish, natural research specialist for the Army Corps of Engineers at Tuttle Creek Lake, said at one point the lake was essentially unusable. Many boat ramps and beaches were submerged, as were various access roads to fishing areas. Floating debris and driftwood were common in the lake, some of which still remain.

According to Prockish, most of the driftwood came from the three rivers that feed the lake, including the Big Blue River. Areas that remain partially closed include Tuttle Creek Cove, which is roughly half open. Cedar Ridge, on the east side of the lake, was closed but is now completely open.

Prockish said maintenance crews have been working in addition to their other duties to clear driftwood as time has allowed. The Corps of Engineers hopes to have the area cleaned up soon.

“The hope is to have the remainder of the driftwood cleanup done by Labor Day,” Prockish said.

The National Weather Service considers summer as the period of June through August, according to Heller. The rain accumulation in Topeka this summer has been so substantial it has actually caused most of Kansas, including Manhattan, to emerge from drought conditions.

Droughts are monitored using a complex system called the Drought Monitor, which is managed by three agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Drought Mitigation Center at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, according to the drought monitor website.

Determining when an area is in a drought involves more than just measuring rain or the lack of it. The three agencies involved use soil conditions, climate and hydrologic measurements from over 350 contributors nationwide, according to the Drought Monitor’s website.

Counties’ drought statuses can cause the counties to be labeled in one of five categories, from D0 to D4, with D0 meaning “abnormally dry” and D1 meaning the county is experiencing “moderate drought”. Categories D2 through D4 signify levels of progressively more severe drought, with D4 being the most severe and resulting in widespread crop losses and shortages of water in local sources, according to the classification scheme on the drought monitor website. Each county is color coded on the Drought Monitor based on its current status.

At the state level, the week of Aug. 11 marked the first time since Nov. 2, 2010 that at least one county wasn’t at least partially in a drought.

“The only conditions we’re seeing are what they call ‘abnormally dry,'” Heller said.

According to the Drought Monitor website, Kansas has been at least “abnormally dry” in some county every week since the week of July 13, 2010. The week of April 28, 2015 was the last time any portion of Riley or Pottawatomie county was considered “abnormally dry.” No portion of either county has been in any level of drought since the week of Sept. 9, 2014.

From June to August, Heller said Topeka has received 17.37 inches of rain this year, 6.47 inches above the approximately 10.9 inch average. Manhattan is likely similar due to its proximity to the state capital, though exact numbers for Manhattan are not available.

Although the rain differences in Riley and Pottawatomie counties may not be identical from year to year to those in Topeka, local farmers have noticed an increase. While drought or dry conditions may be economically devastating, too much rain can also cause problems for local farmers, such as large inflows into the lake, according to Prockish.

“That’s something I think a lot of people don’t realize,” Prockish said. “We have a large amount of land at the north end of the lake project that is leased to the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, and a lot of it is leased to farmers.”

Kenny Duncan, of Westmoreland, said he locally raises beef cattle and farms a variety of crops, including hay. The rain has relieved some problems but has also caused him others, particularly with hay.

“We’re 30 days behind on haying,” Duncan said. “We just started putting up our hay a week or 10 days ago, and we should be finishing up instead of just getting started.”

Duncan said other crops, such as corn, have flourished because of the extra rain, but it has “been a bear” for him to try catching up on planting hay. Still, Duncan said he welcomes the extra rain as opposed to a drought, enough that he was reluctant to complain about the rain at all.

“Anything beats a drought,” Duncan said. “Drought affects everything; too much rain just affects certain parts of the operation.”

Duncan farms the land for about 30 landowners and said the biggest surprise for him has been how understanding they have been through the delays this year.

“I haven’t heard a discouraging word from anybody,” Duncan said. “It’s all been positive.”

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Shelton Burch
Shelton grew up in the desert southwest. A native of Lancaster, California, he mostly grew up in south Phoenix, Arizona; Austin, Texas; and Colorado Springs, Colorado before moving to Kansas and graduating from Junction City High School. He started working as a news writer for the Collegian in 2009 before taking a three-year break from college. He returned to K-State in 2013 and has since worked for the news desk, feature desk, as a copy editor and now as a sports writer. He enjoys tap dancing, writing anything possible, reading court opinions and watching Arizona Coyotes hockey.