The Kansas (Kaw) River

A new day dawns upon Kansas City at the confluence of the Kaw and Missouri Rivers.

5. Description

The Kaw (or Kansas) River stretches its length across 148 miles in the U.S. state of Kansas. The Kaw name comes from the native Kaw people of the river. It has minor dams for flood control, as well as a hydroelectricity generating plant facility dam. The river has a 148-mile length, and has widths ranging from 1 mile to 4 miles in some places. It is situated in the southwestern waters of the Missouri River Basin, which are some of the most northwesterly waters of the Mississippi River Basin. The Kansas River arises from the confluence of the Smoky Hill River and the Republican River. It then makes its way to the Missouri River as it continues on to meander through the muddy floodplains.

4. Historical Role

In 1718, French cartographer Guillaume de L'Isle included the Kansas River in his map titled “Carte de la Louisiane.” In 1721, a British cartographer published the French map into English. At around this time, many native Americans and French traders already navigated the river with little difficulty. In 1804, Lewis and Clark wrote an account of their trip down the Kansas River in their own journals. In 1854, steamers began plying the Kansas River, and were the main means of transport there until 1860, when railroad trains replaced steamers in the transport of goods. Then, from 1864 to 1913, the river was declared "non-navigable", and that gave bridge and railroad companies the right to build bridges and dams along the river's length.

3. Modern Significance

The Kansas River of today has been designated as under the control of the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The two bodies manage several reservoirs in the river that help in flood control for the surrounding areas. Several organizations manage tourism and outdoor sports in the river. These outings include rowing, kayaking, canoeing, and fishing. There are boating trips and clean-ups in the river sponsored by the “Friends of Kaw.” There are also fairs, film festivals, and community events surrounding the river areas that attract many tourists. There is a portage access on the left bank of the river from the I-435 Bridge. The Topeka, Kansas municipal Water Department maintains a dam on the river, while there is also the Bowersock Dam that manages its own hydroelectric power facility in the river.

2. Habitat and Biodiversity

Along the length and surrounding areas of the Kansas River are many habitats, such as highlands, river lowlands, chalk bluffs, rounded hills, and broad valleys. Flora of the region consists of floodplain vegetation, tall-grass prairie, oak-hickory forests, short-grass prairie, cross timbers, mixed prairie, sand prairie, and sandsage prairie. The Smoky Hills, from where the Kansas River originates, has chalk bluffs that are its prominent feature. Fossils are also abundant in the area. Other flora consists of clovers, milkweed, and orchids. Beetles are also abundantly found living in these plants. Sturgeons, lampreys, minnows, chubs, shiners, madtoms, and darters comprise the fish species in the river. Reptiles include snakes, turtles, salamanders, toads, and newts. Mammals of the Kansas River Valley include ferrets and skunks, while avian species there are represented by cranes, plovers, terns, vireos, and curlews.

1. Environmental Threats and Territorial Disputes

In 2010, the Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area was created under the Obama administration in Kansas. In 2012, the Kansas River was designated as a National Water Trail that became part of a system of rivers that promotes conservation and recreation. The Kansas River is the longest river in the prairie lands of the U.S. However, human impact has asserted a threat that is magnified by damming and dredging of the river. Habitat loss, as a result of these human activities, has caused the loss of several native fish communities from the Kansas River. The reason why dams are injurious to the ecological system of the river is that they fragment the fragile ecosystem present in the river by disrupting the natural water flow speeds and navigation routes for fish.


More in Environment