In late May, former Hays city manager Hannes Zacharias started a dream trip he’d been planning for decades: following a drop of water from the headwaters of the Arkansas River to the Gulf of Mexico. He’s had to take some creative methods of travel through western Kansas, where the river has no flow or is even dry, but his desire is to get to know the river, and, in turn, help Kansans know its current and historical importance to the state.
He spent Independence Day in Hutchinson, floating the river and celebrating the holiday with the owners of a canoe and kayak rental business. He is scheduled to arrive today in Wichita, where he’ll restock his supplies. On Sunday, he’ll set his kayak into the Arkansas River once again, floating the river to the Mississippi River. He expects to reach the Gulf of Mexico on Sept. 1.
On Monday while he was in Dodge City, I interviewed Zacharias about his trip and his thoughts on the cities of Hays and Russell pursuing water from an Edwards County ranch along the Arkansas, published Wednesday. Today, the conversations continues on the trip and his reasons for making it.
You can follow Zacharias’ progress on his Facebook page, Hannes’s Ark River Adventure.
You’re not kayaking right now obviously, if there’s no flow in the Arkansas River.
I’ve been using alternate methods that are interesting. I’ve ridden the river on horseback. A gentleman by the name of Brian Shirley took me on an ATV ride from Garden City all the way to Ford, about 65 miles. It was terrific. I was able to bring my kayak by conestoga wagon. I’ve tried all the methods of alternate transportation trying to get my kayak down river, including walking the river as well as the river bed.
We’re not kayaking right now, but I’m trying to, in the places I can’t float, I’m trying to do two things. I walk certain segments or at least traverse certain segments to get an idea of the vegetation and the wildlife and the flora and fauna, if you will, of the area, as well as exploring the neighboring communities along which the river abuts.
I think it’s a joy for me, growing up in Dodge City, to understand more of the history I kind of bypassed. So touring Cimmaron for example, Ingles, Dodge City again, Kinsley, touring Larned coming up here pretty quick and Pawnee Rock and those areas along the Arkansas River is a joy for me.
What kind of people are you meeting and what kind of reaction do you get from them as you explain what you’re doing?
Well I’m meeting all sorts of people. I’m meeting with appointed and elected officials along the way, ranchers and farmers, average people, about the river. Part of the effort of this whole journey is to bring attention to the Arkansas River and to let people know that it was a substantial resource, and is a substantial resource. It’s the 45th-longest river in the world. It’s the sixth-longest river in the country. For 90 percent of its length it’s a substantial resource. The area where it is dry, basically from Deefield, Kansas, to, at this point in time, Kinsley, we’ll see if it comes back or not. It’s all by virtue of man-made decisions.
I’m not condemning irrigation. Irrigation’s been part of our history of humanity for a long time. I think we need to be smarter about it. What I found out at this point in time is that people are very interested in the water the Arkansas River brings, but nobody is interested in the Arkansas River. I’m not saying we convert all the irrigation to provide minimum desirable stream flow, but it doesn’t need to be 100 percent. Can we find some way to mitigate the effect of irrigation … to provide some sort of stream flow, to have the river be in use at least some of the time? Those are decisions that have occurred during my life. I have photographs from 1985 in Dodge City where it was really well-used and there was water in the river.
There are two things that strike me about the river, at least from my journey so far in Colorado and Kansas. One of which is, of course, the water supply issue and irrigation taking all the water that is being used from the Arkansas-Colorado River Compact. That was a river compact negotiated in 2009 that there be some stream flow coming in the Arkansas River. That’s not happening. That’s one thing.
Second thing is the water quality is hugely degraded by virtue of how it’s being used. Water comes out of Pueblo Reservoir, it goes through a ditch irrigation system and comes back into the river and it does that three or four times through its entire length through Syracuse. In Syracuse, the same sort of thing happens as well. Water quality is really poor. It’s deplorable. I think that’s a greater concern than the water quantity.
You have to have places like La Junta and Los Animas that put in reverse osmosis facilities because the water quality is so poor. That’s a signal. And also being considered now is the ‘great conduit,’ which is the water rights for those communities. Instead of being pulled out of the aquifer there, they want to build a conduit to go from Pueblo Reservoir so they pull out cleaner water, so that gives you an idea of how bad the water quality gets by virtue of this constant going through corn fields and alfalfa feeds back into the river base. Those are the two things I recognize.
I don’t think Kansas is any greater actually, they do the same thing. Once you cross the border, the same thing happens. It is just totally consumed so you don’t have that kind protection for downstream users, because there is no downstream users.
So those are some of my impressions. I’m trying to moderate my feelings about it, but I also want to be accurate about it.
In December, after eight years as Johnson County administrator and 16 years total with that office, the Johnson County Commission voted not to renew your contract. What was your reaction — not your immediate reaction, but once it sunk in? Did you immediately start thinking about this trip or did you have to take some time and think, ‘now what’?
Actually, my wife and I had been pondering the need to retire this summer anyway. It came at a good time. I had let the chairman know about my plan. I’m 64, and that seemed like a good time to kind of do a next-phase life, so that was already something we’d contemplated the last few years. It just happened serendipitously that in some sense, the decision was made for us as opposed to me lingering on.
I’d been thinking about this for 20, 30 years. Part of the issue was to say to my family either put up or shut up.
The transition was difficult. No one likes to make those transitions. The community support I had in Johnson County was overwhelming, still is overwhelming. I still appreciate that. Even those commissioners who did not desire to extend my contract still have good feeling toward me. So the environmet’s good. It made the decision to go ahead and basically pursue this dream, all the impediments went away —time and resources in terms of applying for KPERS benefits.
Then I had some very good conversations with the University of Kansas. They want me to teach. They had been courting me for quite awhile. I let them know I wanted time to do this. They were very accommodating. The stars lined up for me to go ahead and do that.
The other thing I’d say about that is it was also something I made a promise to myself to do, so part of the trip is the time is available. I’ve been dreaming that for a long time and I think people should go ahead and try to fulfill the promises they make themselves.
I also kind of want to send a message to people my age to say you can still have adventures. I’m not done yet. The idea that past a certain age you’re supposed to be more reserved, I’m certainly being smart about it, but I still want to do adventures.
And fourthly, I, as you know, have a lot of passion for water. I want to be able to talk about water in the first person. So my hope is that people will see enough value in this trip that they might invite me to go ahead and make presentations or speaking activities to Rotary Clubs and whatever to give more exposure to the Arkansas River and to waster issues in general. I feel by doing this trip I may have a little more first-hand experience to be useful for people to hear about.
Is there anything else you wanted to mention?
One thing that’s been interesting on this whole trip is to reconnect this country to the river. I find the people I run into along the river, once you get past the veneer of the initial political stripe that everyone wears, people are very kind and accommodating and very reasonable. And that gives me a lot of hope for the future. So part of the issue is to say we still are a nation of Americans and we recognize that we are basically, fundamentally immigrants at our heart, and the only natives are the Native Americans. Everyone else came here from outside the country and we have more in common than we have uncommon. That’s joyful for me to recognize that and reveal that.