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Geohydrology of Rice County (1950)

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Topography and Drainage

Rice County is at the eastern edge of the area designated by Fenneman (1931, Pl. 1) as the Plains Border section of the Great Plains province. In this classification it is a part of the erosional transition belt between the receding High Plains to the west and the broadening Central Lowland to the east. Previously, in a more detailed division of the surface features of Kansas, Moore (1930), included the southern part of Rice County in the depositional plain of the Great Bend Prairie and the northern part in the erosional Smoky Hills Upland.

At the surface in most of the county is a series of depositional units directly related to the Great Bend Prairie province which, in the northern part, is underlain by the erosional surface of the Smoky Hills Upland. Small erosional remnants of the High Plains surface in the central and western part of the county are shown on the geologic map (Pl. 1) as Tertiary areas. On the geologic map, areas which are properly classed as inliers of the Smoky Hills Upland are shown as isolated outcrops of Cretaceous rocks. The Cretaceous and Permian rocks exposed in the drainage basin of Arkansas River also may be considered as part of the Smoky Hills Upland or Plains Border.

In this report the physiographic divisions of Rice County are subdivided into geologic regions and lithologic areas with similar ground-water characteristics, and are shown on Plate 2. The water-bearing characteristics of each area are discussed in the section on ground-water regions.

The development of the present depositional surface from the High Plains surface is a record of the Pleistocene history of Rice County. A detailed discussion of the Pleistocene history of the county is presented in the section on history of drainage.

Most of Rice County is drained by Arkansas River and its tributaries, Cow Creek and Little Arkansas River. A small part of northeastern Rice County drains into the Smoky Hill River system.


The climate of Rice County is of the middle-latitude continental type, with a moderately wide range in temperature. The mean annual temperature for Alden, in the southwestern part of the county, is 56° F. and for Geneseo, in the north-central part, 55.7° F.

The normal annual precipitation at Alden, computed from records covering the period from 1898 to 1942, is 25.86 inches (Fig. 3). The monthly normals at Lyons for the same period (Fig, 4) show that January has the lowest precipitation, with a normal of 0.61 inch, and June has the highest with a normal of 4.10 inches.

Figure 3--Annual precipitation and cumulative departure from normal precipitation at Alden.

Annual precipitation and cumulative departure from normal precipitation at Alden.

Figure 4--Monthly distribution of precipitation at Lyons.

Monthly distribution of precipitation at Lyons.

The average growing season is 181 days; this has ranged from 135 days in one year to 223 days in another. The latest day in the spring on which a killing frost has been recorded is May 17, while the earliest date in the fall is September 20.


Rice County, with an area of 721 square miles, had a population of 14,608, or about 20 inhabitants to the square mile, according to the 1945 census [10,083 in 2010, 13.9 per square mile, KU Institute for Policy & Social Research]. Lyons, population 3,711 [3,739 in 2010], is the largest city in the county; Sterling has a population of 1,984 [2,328 in 2010]. Other city population figures, according to the 1945 census, are: Chase, 690 [477 in 2010]; Geneseo, 554 [267 in 2010]; Little River, 587 [577 in 2010]; Bushton, 540 [279 in 2010]; Alden, 294 [148 in 2010]; Frederick, 62 [18 in 2010]. No population figures were available for Raymond, Silica, Mitchell, Saxman, Crawford, and Pollard.


Rice County is served by branch lines of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway, the Missouri Pacific Railroad, and the St. Louis & San Francisco Railway. The main line of the Missouri Pacific's Kansas City, Missouri, to Pueblo, Colorado, line passes through the northern part of the county.

U. S. Highway 50 North passes in an east-west direction through the middle of the county. Kansas Highway 14 passes in a north-south direction through the center. Both of these highways are paved. Kansas Highway 96 is routed over Kansas Highway 14 south of Lyons and over U. S. Highway 50 west of Lyons. Kansas Highway 4 is a graded, graveled road paralleling the Missouri Pacific Railroad through the northern part of the county. Kansas Highway 46 consists of 1Y2 miles of pavement between Little River and U. S. Highway 50 North.

County and township roads are good most of the year. Roads on most section lines are open except in parts of the sand-dune areas in the southwestern and southeastern parts of the county.


Rice County has a total of 1,487 farms comprising 461,440 acres. According to the report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture for June 1946, there were 269,220 acres of crops harvested in Rice County in 1945. The principal crops harvested in Rice County in 1945 were as follows:

Crop distribution in Rice County in 1945
Wheat 206,000
Corn 6,300
Oats 5,190
Barley 1,730
Flax 30
Soybeans 10
Sorghums 35,100
Alfalfa 12,200
Hay, not including alfalfa 2,660

Natural Resources and Industries

Oil and Gas

Oil and gas are important natural resources of Rice County. Gas was produced here as early as 1888 and oil was first discovered in the Welch pool in 1924. In 1944 the 36 gas and oil pools of the county produced a total of 8,026,135 barrels of oil and 7,276,755,000 cubic feet of gas. Pools that extend across the county boundaries of Barton, Ellsworth, and McPherson Counties, produced 13,498,005 barrels of oil. Total cumulative production credited to Rice County by the end of 1944 was 86,582,907 barrels of oil (Ver Wiebe, 1945). [Current production available online.]

Oil has been found in the Shawnee and Kansas City-Lansing groups and the basal conglomerate of the Pennsylvanian; the Mississippian; the Simpson of Ordovician age; the Arbuckle of Cambro-Ordovician age; and Pre-Cambrian rocks (Moore and Jewett, 1942).

The major structural element controlling the occurrence of oil and gas in Rice County is the Central Kansas uplift which extends into Rice County from the north-northwest. Rocks of Mississippian age do not occur over this structural high and production from them in Rice County is limited to the flanks of the uplift, in the southeastern part of the county.

Directly dependent upon the oil and gas production in Rice County are well and pipe line maintenance industries, compressor stations, and retail oil-well supply stores.


Since 1888 salt has been produced commercially in Rice County. The earliest record of salt found in large quantities is in the log of a well at Lyons in December, 1887. Soon after this discovery, brine wells at Sterling and shaft mining and brine wells at Lyons were developed. Salt is produced by two plants at Lyons by shaft mining of the rock salt and by evaporation of brines produced by pumping water into the salt zone and forcing out the brine. Records of shafts and wells show the top of the first salt beds to be about 790 feet below the surface at Lyons and about 700 feet below the surface at Sterling. The salt, with interbedded shales, has a thickness of 300 to 350 feet (Taft, 1946). It is found in the Hutchinson salt member of the Wellington shale of Permian age.

Sand and Gravel

Thick deposits of sand and gravel in the Arkansas River Valley are used extensively for road-surfacing material and concrete aggregate. Four gravel pits were in operation in Rice County in 1946.


Sandstone has been quarried in several places in the county for use as building stone. The Stone Corral dolomite of Permian age is quarried along the southwestern bluff of Little Arkansas River. It is used as crushed rock and has had some use as building stone. Hard, calcareous sandstone, which is quarried at several points in the county, is used as crushed rock for road-surfacing material and for concrete aggregate.

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Kansas Geological Survey, Geohydrology
Placed on web June 15, 2015; originally published July 1950.
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