Even In Drought, Ark River Experiences Increased 'Traffic'

Ark, Kansas and Missouri Rivers 'between high water marks' are public domain; Thanks to drought, Ark is now popular with motorcylists, ATV riders

Published on: May 8, 2013

You don't normally think of the use of a river increasing when there's no water in it, but that's just what is happening to the Arkansas River in central and western Kansas.

Thanks to the prolonged drought, the river is dry or has only few shallow pools in many parts of the region. As a result, the stream that would ordinarily see traffic from boats and canoes is being traversed by motorcycles, trucks and all-terrain vehicles.

The result has been confusion about landowner rights, legal activity on the river and even action by local law enforcement agencies and the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, which are concerned about wildlife violations, vandalism and other disorderly behavior.

Normally filled with water, the Arkansas River has seen a rise in traffic from motorcycles and ATVs due to drought.
Normally filled with water, the Arkansas River has seen a rise in traffic from motorcycles and ATVs due to drought.

Property rights part of the confusion
Part of the confusion stems from Kansas laws on property rights. Of the more than 10,000 miles of streams and rivers in Kansas, most stream or river beds are considered the private property of the owner of the adjacent land. The exceptions are the Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri Rivers, which have their own special rules.

Kansas law says the portion of those three rivers that lies "between the ordinary high water marks on each bank" is public domain. Those marks are usually defined by debris, sand or gravel deposited along the banks. There are no fences, markings or signage required to define the boundaries.

If someone wants to access the "public domain" portion of the river, they are not allowed to trespass on private property to get there, which means in areas where the rivers flow through private property access to the public domain channel has to be made from a public spot unless the user gets permission from a landowner to cross his land to access the river.

People using the Arkansas River are subject to the same laws and regulations as on land, so operating a vehicle while intoxicated, reckless driving, disorderly conduct and other violations are prohibited.  Also, destruction of certain wildlife habitat can be a violation, such as destroying beaver dams and lodges. Where there is some water flow, a beaver dam helps hold back the flow, creating vital habitat for other wildlife during a drought.

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