Frank Morris for NPR
A deer carcass lies on the dried riverbed of the Arkansas River in Lakin, Kan.
A deer carcass lies on the dried riverbed of the Arkansas River in Lakin, Kan. Frank Morris for NPR
Drought has set in early and hard across the Midwest, parching the Arkansas River basin. The river trickling out of the mountains is dry before it reaches some of the major agricultural uses downstream. And the drought is torching crops, sapping tourism and threatening supplies of drinking water.
High in the Rocky Mountains, about 10 miles north of Leadville, Colo., the Arkansas River starts as a trickle running off some of the tallest peaks in the continental United States.
In a normal year, "you would see snowcapped peaks and water rushing down," says Garry Hanks, a retired high school teacher who now serves as a deputy water commissioner in southeast Colorado.
But this year there's hardly even a dribble of water coming down from the mountains. And the drought intensifies just downstream.
A Dry Spell Spans The Country
The country is suffering from the worst drought since 1956, with about 55 percent of the continental U.S. suffering from "moderate to extreme drought," according to the National Climatic Data Center.
Almost every drop of water of the shrinking Arkansas River is spoken for. Local farmers and other residents compete with tourism, fishing, and rafting.
"Rafting is the summertime [equivalent] of skiing when you're talking about Colorado," says Andy Neinas, who runs Echo Canyon, a large river outfitter. Rafting is big business on the Arkansas, and business is down. Neinas blames the forest fires more than the water levels, but the river is low.
All the water in the river is allocated based on seniority — the older the water claim, the higher the priority. Canon City, Colo., at the mouth of the Royal Gorge, holds one of the best claims. But even here, Bob Hartzman of the city's water department worries that its river water will soon be cut off.
"Our water rights have never been called out. That just shows you how things have changed over these last hundred years," Hartzman says.
Frank Morris for NPR
Dan Henrichs, a cattle rancher on the High Line Canal in Avondale, Colo., is also the local ditch superintendent.
Dan Henrichs, a cattle rancher on the High Line Canal in Avondale, Colo., is also the local ditch superintendent. Frank Morris for NPR
Cracks In The Ground
When the call for Canon City's water rights does come, it'll be from 50 miles downstream near Avondale, Colo., where agriculture rules.
Dan Henrichs raises longhorn cattle on the wide-open plains of Avondale just east of the Rockies. It's desert dry normally, and this year has been even more arid and brutally hot.
Pale brown, sun-broiled scrubland surrounds this valley. Yet one pasture is green. Fields of thirsty watermelon and corn flourish a few miles away, all thanks to the river.
At the head gates of the High Line Canal and the Arkansas River, most of what's left of the river spills into rusty steel gates. The canal holds a very old claim and still runs strong. But most irrigation canals are dry, leaving miles and miles of crops to wither.
Stretches Of Sand
Travel 100 miles east on the river and you'll find Dale Mauch, who runs a big farming and cattle operation near Lamar, Colo.
Frank Morris for NPR
The drought has resulted in withered cornstalks and cracked land near Lamar, Colo.
The drought has resulted in withered cornstalks and cracked land near Lamar, Colo. Frank Morris for NPR
"You can see by the cracks in the ground how dry it is," Mauch says, as he points to a withered cornstalk. The Fort Lyon Canal, which four generations of his family have relied on for irrigation, dried up last month.
"This is the first time that we went to zero before the Fourth of July," Mauch says. "That's just something [that] ... in 152 years has never happened."
Thirty-five miles farther downstream, the Arkansas River crosses into Kansas, where it is spelled the same but pronounced differently.
In Lakin, Kan., there's not even a hint of water under a bridge that purports to span the Arkansas River. Instead, dry sand stretches for miles and a deer carcass rots in the sun.
The river that supports mining, fishing and rafting — and waters corn, cattle, and lots of people — dies in western Kansas. It picks up again midway across the state and flows on through Oklahoma and Arkansas into the Mississippi River.
But this week 100-degree highs will bake most of this long basin and deepen the worst drought in memory.