By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

CEDAR BLUFF RESERVOIR -- Gov. Sam Brownback marveled at the interior of a toadstool shelter-turned-cabin at Cedar Bluff State Park but he cringed at the low water levels nearby.

Brownback stopped at Cedar Bluff at the start of Tuesday's drought tour, a whirlwind trip that took him to WaKeeney, Hill City and finally to Hoxie.

Prior to Brownback's visit, park manager Chris Smith went through a series of calculations to show just how valuable water is to the lake and the area.

A study in 2001 showed visitors to Cedar Bluff spent an average of $51 a day in and around the lake, for a total economic impact of $14.7 million.

Smith looked at the numbers and how visitation has followed water level declines -- almost precisely -- and determined each foot of water in the lake is worth nearly $1.2 million.

As water levels fall, he said, visitation falls as well.

In 2010, when there was an almost 3-foot jump in water levels, the visitors returned.

With the lake now nearly 20 feet low, visitation has declined but the lake still attracts a lot of visitors.

This year's heat, he said, has been tough, although not so much on sites where utilities -- electricity and water -- are located.

There, campers with self-contained units can plug in and stay cool despite the harsh temperatures outside.

Camping activity slowed briefly when the lake was placed under an advisory for blue-green algae. Cedar Bluff since has been given a clean bill of health, but the heat has made it tough on people camping in tents.

With the lake now just about halfway to its all-time low set in 1992, boat ramps and other facilities remain open or become open as the water levels fall.

"We've got ramps at lower elevations," Smith said of the boat ramps constructed to provide continued access to the lake. "Hopefully, they're not too damaged by wave action."

The existing boat ramp on the north side of the lake, for example, stretches well into the water and should be available for quite some time.

That ramp was in good conditions when it came out of the water, he said.

"We had to rework the parking lot," Smith said.

There's a similar situation on the south side of the lake as well.

Smith has struggled to watch Cedar Bluff continue its decline even as other lakes in the area -- notably Kirwin and Webster -- filled up, even to the point of forcing the release of water to prevent damage from waves.

"The last three years, there have been some big rains north and south," he said. "The Smoky River basin is pretty narrow. It has to fall pretty close to the reservoir."