By Tom Pelikan, The Arkansas River Coalition

The headwaters of the Arkansas River near Lead...
The headwaters of the Arkansas River near Leadville, Colorado. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Arkansas is an amazing river, from the mountains near Leadville, across the plains east of I-25 into western Kansas, around the Great Bend and south to Wichita and through Kaw Lake into Oklahoma, then to Tulsa where it becomes a navigable river with ocean-going barges all the way through Arkansas to the Mississippi. Learn how an interstate compact divides the Arkansas’ waters between states.

It’s America’s sixth-longest river at right around 1,469 miles with two of the top 20, the 13th, the Canadian and the 20th, the Cimarron, flowing into it, with a seven-state watershed, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas. As you’d expect with such a big river system, it has incredible biological, agricultural, recreational and historical diversity.

Conifers of all sorts, from Pinon Pines to Douglas Firs, hold the high country. Cottonwoods and prairie trees take over east of Pueblo, then traditional hardwoods like oaks, maples and hickories take over from Wichita on downstream to the delta. The delta is even home to cypress and other swamp woods. As for wildlife, imagine a watershed that includes Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, grouse, pelicans, and alligators.

Rocky Ford melonsThe agriculture of the Arkansas will stun you. There’s a feedlot and auction yard near Salida that calls itself the home of high-altitude cattle. Then you get downstream and you encounter Rocky Ford’s famous melons. There’s a winery within a mile of the Arkansas in all four states it flows through. Wheat, corn, soybeans and barley thrive along the Arkansas in eastern Colorado and Kansas. Bison are raised for meat in Oklahoma near the Arkansas. There’s a producing pecan grove on the Arkansas about 20 miles south of Wichita. And there are cotton fields and rice paddies in Arkansas itself.

Coloradans are used to whitewater rafting along the Arkansas in places like Buena Vista, Salida and Canon City. Royal Gorge is a legendary tourist and recreational attraction. Fishermen catch trout from the shore in the mountains and bass in John Martin Reservoir and downstream from Great Bend it again becomes suitable for flat water kayaking and canoeing.

There are two National Historic Trails that follow the Arkansas for a good bit of its length. The Trail of Tears follows the Arkansas from the Mississippi upstream to Fort Gibson, Oklahoma and the Santa Fe Trail joins the Arkansas at Great Bend and follows it to about halfway between La Junta and Rocky Ford. You can see the Arkansas from Bent’s Old Fort in La Junta and the Arkansas was the border between the U.S. and Mexico for nearly 30 years. Fort Larned in Kansas isn’t far from the River and it passes through Native American lands in northeastern Oklahoma. The first retired brothel to be on the National Register of Historic Places is now the Fort Smith, Arkansas visitors’ center, a museum dedicated to United States Marshals will open in Fort Smith within a year or two and the Clinton Presidential Center is in Little Rock, along with a retired U.S. Navy submarine, the U.S.S. Razorback.

The Arkansas River Coalition, www.arkrivercoalition.org, which I serve as Vice President, is currently an all-volunteer organization based out of Wichita and last year we adopted our first strategic plan and procedures for starting up chapters. Our mission is to protect, restore and improve the entire Arkansas River Watershed and to enhance the well-being of all life it sustains. We started our first chapter, a Colorado Mountains chapter, earlier this year and I’d love to see a Colorado Plains chapter up and running within a year. We need more people and we even have a vacancy on our Board. If you’re interested in helping the Amazing Arkansas, visit our web site or e-mail me at hrhpelikani@gmail.com or call me at 720-219-3279.

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5 thoughts on “The Amazing Arkansas River

  1. After spending some time reading several blog posts, I realized how much I take water for granted. In a recent blog post, “The Value of Water” by Mark Scharfenaker, he describes his daily interaction with clean water (All things that I enjoy as well):
    “-Glorious hot showers every morning at the turn of a valve!
    -Clean teeth and a close shave every day with the flip of a faucet!
    -Countless clean clothes and dishes at the touch of a button!
    -Blessed moisture from our ever-churning humidifier!
    -Many daily flushes of each of two Denver Water-subsidized low flow toilets, at the twist of a handle (how can we even begin to put a fair price on this incredibly undervalued service?)
    -Healthy house plants and happy pets!”

    But this article made me think about more than household comforts. What about our food this river supports? Or what about the recreational activities that we gain enjoyment from? It seems that the Arkansas river supports a diverse community, and it motivated me to learn more about it’s quality. I eventually ended up on a quality report (http://www.kgs.ku.edu/Hydro/UARC/quality-report.html) that described in its “problem section” that the Arkansas river is one of the most saline rivers in the United States. Because of how large this river is, many people utilize it for themselves for things like irrigation. This is a problem because a decreased volume of water makes it more saline and more hazardous. What efforts are being made to protect this River?

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    Josh

  2. After spending some time reading several blog posts, I realized how much I take water for granted. In a recent blog post, “The Value of Water” by Mark Scharfenaker, he describes his daily interaction with clean water (All things that I enjoy as well):
    “-Glorious hot showers every morning at the turn of a valve!
    -Clean teeth and a close shave every day with the flip of a faucet!
    -Countless clean clothes and dishes at the touch of a button!
    -Blessed moisture from our ever-churning humidifier!
    -Many daily flushes of each of two Denver Water-subsidized low flow toilets, at the twist of a handle (how can we even begin to put a fair price on this incredibly undervalued service?)
    -Healthy house plants and happy pets!”

    But this article made me think about more than household comforts. What about our food this river supports? Or what about the recreational activities that we gain enjoyment from? It seems that the Arkansas river supports a diverse community, and it motivated me to learn more about it’s quality. I eventually ended up on a quality report (http://www.kgs.ku.edu/Hydro/UARC/quality-report.html) that described in its “problem section” that the Arkansas river is one of the most saline rivers in the United States. Because of how large this river is, many people utilize it for themselves for things like irrigation. This is a problem because a decreased volume of water makes it more saline and more hazardous. What efforts are being made to protect this River?

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    Josh

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