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Hatteberg's People: Bob Gress Says Don't Mow The Water

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Autumn arrives as she always has along the banks of the Big Arkansas River, the only that's missing is the river!

Despite this weekend's rain, the Big Arkansas River still looks like a ribbon of sandy desert. There are spots with a bit of water, but most of us haven't seen the river this dry in our lifetimes. One man who follows nature is Bob Gress with Wichita's Great Plains Nature Center. A walk with him in the dry Arkansas River bed gives hope for the future.

"Walking down a river bed that is just sand, when we are used to seeing it flowing with water and sometimes that water moving violently through the area is somewhat shocking. It makes us think about the wildlife that lived here. What happened to them and where did they go?" said Gress.

Gress says what we're experiencing with the river is unusual, but nature has it under control.

"The native fish find pools, little reservoirs like this, puddles and drying pools and have always managed to survive the drought and to repopulate the river, as they've done for centuries. After periods of drought, then we get water, they repopulate, and the cycle goes on," said Gress.

As the poison Ivey turns from green to crimson along the bank, Gress says while the river looks bad, many of the animals like the beavers are just waiting it out.

"Like humans respond to tragedy and changing conditions, the wildlife usually does as well," said Gress. "It probably is their last stand, it's a time of hardship and a time of death for a little remnant pool of minnows. It's an open banquet if you are a predator. It's a disaster if you are a minnow."

While life can be stark on the riverbed, there is also a beauty. Motorists driving over Wichita's bridges don't get to see the plant life that flourishes when the water disappears. The plants, the grasses and the weeds take over. Gress says don't worry about them because they'll be gone soon enough.

"When the water is rolling along, because all of that sand is very abrasive, we refer to it as 'scouring' the river bottom, and that is essentially what the water does. There is not much need to be concerned about maintenance of the river or what happens. When we get water flowing down here it maintains itself," said Gress.

Turtle tracks give evidence of life on this sandy river bottom. Meanwhile, the cockleburs struggle for dominance. Gress sees an abundance of life just waiting for more rain like we've had this weekend to turn this waterless river into a waiting raging torrent.

"It's cyclic, it replenishes, it's life and it will be back."


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