The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - The changes are so subtle, most fishermen in Missouri or Kansas don't even notice.

There are few pipes dumping pollutants into the water. Few fish kills, where thousands of carcasses bob in the waves and wash up on shores. Few nasty odors that signal something is wrong.

But make no mistake. Beneath the surface, there are problems. Problems that may affect the future of fishing in the two-state area.

"We definitely face some challenges as a lot of these reservoirs age," said Doug Nygren, chief of fisheries for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. "The peak of our fishing was in the '70s. A lot of these reservoirs were new then, and there were a lot of people buying licenses.

"It's gone down every year since then. A lot of these reservoirs are 40 to 50 years old now, and they're aging. They have problems that we have to address before it's too late."

Troubled waters? In some cases, that's indeed the case.

-Some Kansas reservoirs such as John Redmond are literally filling in as heavy silt loads flow into the main bodies. At Redmond, an 8,000-acre reservoir in the southeast part of the state, officials estimate that sediment now takes up 42 percent of the conservation storage capacity.

-During the hot, dry summers of the last two years, the water levels dropped to record lows at some reservoirs. In several Kansas reservoirs, that has contributed to nasty outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae, which thrive in warm, still water. Fisheries biologists are worried that this might be the start of a cycle.

-Though the Clean Water Act has done a good job tackling point pollution - that is, the direct dumping of pollutants into the reservoirs - there are still big problems in the watersheds. Farm ground above reservoirs and tributaries with unstable banks still dump everything from silt to chemicals into the water that flows into reservoirs.

-In Missouri, civilization is closing in on many once-remote streams in the Ozarks and the changes are troubling. Excessive gravel and silt loads that fill in holes, erosion of banks and the gradual widening of the channels have been reported.

"These reservoirs are man-made," said David Casaletto, executive director of Ozarks Water Watch, a citizens group devoted to protecting the waters of the Ozarks. "We built them, and it's our responsibility to protect them.

"People don't always see the problems, because they're not as noticeable as they once were. But they're out there."

Susan Metzger of the Kansas Water Office calls John Redmond Reservoir the "poster child" of the effects of sedimentation.

When the lake was built in 1964, it was a gleaming facility full of promise for flood control, drinking-water supply and recreation such as fishing. But it didn't take long for the luster to wear off.

With a huge drainage area - 30,145 acres and much of it farm ground - the reservoir began picking up large volumes of silt. Today, its average depth is only 6 feet. And the fishery has suffered, Nygren said.

"It's become a large flat basin," Nygren said. "The channels have filled in and a lot of the good habitat is buried under silt.

"From a fisheries standpoint, it's just basically unmanageable. It doesn't have a desirable fishery.

"There is some good fishing below the dam, but on the lake itself the sediment load has caused problems."

But Redmond isn't in a boat by itself. Many other reservoirs across the state are having problems with sedimentation, although to a lesser extent than John Redmond.

"On most of our major reservoirs, the upper ends are silted in," Nygren said. "We also see a lot of erosion on shorelines."

Metzger agrees, pointing out that Toronto, Tuttle Creek, Fall River and Kanopolis also have lost 30 percent of their capacity to sedimentation. In contrast, reservoirs such as Melvern and Big Hill have lost only 2 percent of their capacity.

"All Kansas reservoirs, regardless of size or location, are impacted by sedimentation," Metzger said.

The solution? The Kansas Water Office is taking bids for dredging John Redmond. But no matter what the bid, that would be extremely expensive. There has also been talk about the Corps of Engineers raising the conservation pool by two feet to keep Redmond from going dry.

But such a step would be only a Band-Aid, some say. They realize the problem is far-reaching in Kansas.

"Some of these reservoirs are silting in far faster than originally planned," said Mark Jakubauskas of the Kansas Biological Survey. "Toronto isn't too far off from what John Redmond is. And on the north end of Perry, we have lost 1,000 surface acres to sedimentation.

"We have boat ramps leading to nowhere, and big flats that were once covered by water that are now dry.

"The problem is that we've built a lot of reservoirs and Mother Nature wants to fill them back in."

The recent rain and snow came as a welcome relief at Cheney Reservoir near Wichita.

No, it didn't do much to raise the water level. But it at least gave fishermen and officials some hope.

The water level at the popular fishing reservoir is 8 feet low after two years of severe drought. That's the lowest since it opened in 1965.

Whether this is an effect of global warming or merely part of a weather cycle, officials hope it doesn't continue. Cheney is a shallow reservoir to start off with. Its deepest spot is only 35 feet deep. With a very narrow watershed ("It's barely four miles wide at its widest," said Ryan Stucky, manager of Cheney State Park), it's dependent on rains that target a specific area to get the North Fork of the Ninnescah River running and feeding the reservoir.

For months now, that hasn't happened. The river went dry for the first time many can remember. And the reservoir is only 59 percent full now, Stucky said.

"We finally have water coming in now," Stuckey said. "Not much, but we'll take anything we can get."

Only one boat ramp is accessible at Cheney and other facilities normally on the water are high and dry.

But Cheney is by no means alone. After two or more years of drought, other bodies of water in Kansas and Missouri also are suffering.

In Missouri, many farm ponds were lost when the hot, dry weather simply sucked the water out of them.

"The last two years combined were by far the worst I've seen in my 30 years here," said Bob Mattucks, a fisheries biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "We saw a lot of ponds either go dry or get so low that there were fish kills."

The drought also dropped water levels at Ozarks reservoirs such as Table Rock, Bull Shoals and Norfork to as much as 10 feet low, but they have rebounded after recent rains and snowfall.

The drought also has encouraged outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae, which thrives in warm, still, phosphorous-rich water. Several reservoirs have had large outbreaks the last two summers that affected recreation and prompted health warnings.

"We need some good spring rains," Nygren said. "If we get another year of drought, we could see more problems."