Jump to Navigation

Forces of Nature - Part 4

Rivers of Kansas.Water

While Kansas is better known for its lack of rain, too much is as big a problem as too little.

It's feast or famine in Kansas when it comes to rain. April through September are the wettest months, but much of the rain comes as heavy downpours. This can lead to flooding.

A natural cycle of drought and flood has been present since before Kansas was a state. The earliest recorded flood was an enormous event that struck the Kansas River valley in 1844.

The Kansas River has flooded many times since then.  Two of the severest floods happened in 1903 and 1951.  During these events, the river swelled to five miles in width at some places.


  • 58 dead
  • $22 million damages


  • 28 dead
  • $1 billion damages

Many Kansas cities suffered above average rainfall in 1951. Use this map chart (at right) to compare the normal rainfall in cities along the Kansas River with the amounts received in 1951. The worst flooding took place in July.

Dam This River

Many dams have been built for flood control.  Kansas is second among U.S. states in the number of dams.  Only Texas, over three times larger, has more. 

Sign protesting Tuttle Creek dam at Randolph, 1955.Building dams on waterways is not new.  Early dams created water supplies and provided power for mills.  One of Kansas' earliest dams was built by J.D. Bowersock in Lawrence during the 1870s.  It harnessed the Kansas River to power flour mills, paper mills, a twine factory, newspaper printing plants, and other businesses.  The company continues to operate as the state's only hydroelectric plant.

Severe flooding in the mid-20th century spurred construction of dams.  Flood control was the main reason the federal government constructed 24 reservoirs in Kansas, but reservoirs had other effects, too.  On the upside, they provided many recreational opportunities.   On the downside, farmland was taken out of production and several towns had to be moved.  Among the destroyed towns was Randolph, whose residents fought unsuccessfully to save their city (see billboard at left).

Jug from Waconda Springs Sanitarium.People kept souvenirs from towns removed for reservoir construction.  One example includes this jug from Waconda Springs.  Many people believed Waconda Sanitarium's spring water had healing properties when it opened in 1907. The resort operated until 1964 when a flood control project forced it to close.  Despite efforts to preserve the site as a national monument, it is now under the waters of Waconda Lake.

Act Natural

Many people feel that reservoirs do not allow nature to act, well, naturally.  Dams can have a devastating impact on the environment.

On the other hand, Kansas reservoirs have functioned fairly well in regards to flood control. Most have been built since 1951. The 1993 flood could have been as devastating as the 1903 and 1951 floods, but most developed areas in Kansas survived untouched due to controls provided by reservoirs and levees.

The truth and consequences of dams include:

  • Dams are effective at flood control, but prevent rich silt deposits from reaching floodplains.
  • Dams convert rivers into lakes, but some species survive only in rivers.
  • Dams prevent fish from migrating, but some fish need to migrate in order to spawn.
  • Dams release cold water that alters river temperature, but some species can't tolerate cold water.
  • Dams disrupt regular flood-drought cycles, but some species' lifecycles are triggered by flood and drought.
  • Dams prevent rivers from meandering across floodplains, but floodplains need water to serve as wildlife habitats.

Save Our Bottoms!

Agnes T. Frog costume.Efforts are being made to preserve Kansas wetlands. Wetlands are natural sponges that trap and release water, slowing it down and reducing the potential for flooding. But their future is threatened by problems created by other needs for water, including irrigation.

Cheyenne Bottoms is the best-known wetlands in the state, and one of international importance. Many migrating birds stop at Cheyenne Bottoms. Despite early attempts to drain them for agricultural purposes, these wetlands have been preserved and maintained since the 1920s.

Another wetlands preservation effort focuses on the Baker Wetlands near Lawrence in northeastern Kansas. When highway construction threatened these wetlands, local citizens created a fictitious character known as Agnes T. Frog to draw attention to their efforts. Agnes ran as a write-in candidate for county commission. Agnes lost the election but the road was never finished, and the debate continues today.

From Nature to Man-Made

Explore the changes humans have made to waterways in Kansas through our brief interactive game, From Nature to Man-Made.


Forces of Nature is an online exhibit developed by the Kansas Museum of History.

  1. Tornadoes - These storms are a Kansas icon
  2. Wind - Kansas is a windy state
  3. Earth - Sometimes our rich soil becomes airborne
  4. Water - Too much or too little is a problem
  5. Fire - Grasslands depend on fire

Interactive Games

Test your knowledge by playing our interactive games.