Flooding damage and resulting maintenance issues have kept Kansas state parks closed to tourists and expected revenue.
Rain and flooding “seriously affected” over 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, Wildlife, Parks and Tourism’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 Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism.
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 tracks the revenue drop there and said Tuesday that Cheney is about $50,000 short from a year ago. “Substantial,” he said.
Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism 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 revenues by the day, while damages to be repaired become more apparent.
Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism 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. The Park Fee Fund and Cabin Fund, combined, generated over $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 income 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 one million last year.
Updates on the status of parks can be found on the department’s website: ksoutdoors.com
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 record 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.
Weekdays are slow at state parks, but on June 11, even the mowing crew from Hutchinson Correctional Facility was limited to areas that 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, Wichita, as he prepared to launch a kayak with fishing poles on board. His bigger hazard was wind.
Nearby, Allyn Lamb, Wichita, a charter member of the Cheney-based Ninnescah Sailing Association which 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.
The tentative plan is to raise money again and replace the trees in 2020. Meanwhile, fans whirred in the Afterdeck’s basement, where three 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, 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 regional supervisor 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 did not 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," the department's 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.