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Intro of The Kansas River Corridor--Its Geologic Setting, Land Use, Economic Geology, and Hydrology


The Kansas River has existed since the time of glacial activity, about 600,000 years ago, in northeast Kansas. During that time the river has developed and modified its floodplain in response to normal and some very severe natural conditions. The influence of human activities has modified some of those natural river responses, although it is much less dynamic than nature's efforts. The intent of this report is to provide information to assist in understanding the Kansas River and its importance to the surrounding area under present and past conditions.

The Kansas River is frequently called the "Kaw" River by people who are closely associated with it. By either its formal or informal name, the Kansas River is among the most important streams in the state. The 10 counties that border the river have approximately 40 percent of the state's population. Six of the state's 10 largest cities are located along its banks. The Kansas River is very important to those citizens as a source or water, construction materials, and recreation.

The objective of this study is to provide readers a better understanding of portions of the geologic history of the Kansas River area, and to point out the importance of various aspects of the river and its corridor to the citizens of the area and the state. To accomplish this, an emphasis is placed on the geologic setting of the river, the hydraulics of the river and its sediment load, and the economic materials associated with the river area, especially sand and gravel deposits.

The Kansas Geological Survey has attempted to place in perspective many important factors concerning the Kansas River and its corridor. For this study, the corridor is defined as the area 6 miles (9.6 km) on either side of the river (a 12-mile [19.2-km] wide area paralleling the length of the river) from Junction City to Kansas City. The Kansas River valley is approximately 138 miles (220 km) long, while the length of the river itself is about 170 miles (272 km) as the river channel meanders across its floodplain. The report begins with the geologic and geographic setting of the river and its basin. This information provides a background for understanding the physical history of the river, a key to understanding its resources. This section of the report includes discussion of the population distribution, the transportation network, and general land use both in the corridor area and the river floodplain.

In the report's second section, industrial minerals--limestone and especially sand and gravel depositsare reviewed to emphasize the importance of location, quality, and quantity of a deposit. Because the issue of river dredging is important to Kansas, sand and gravel and their production are emphasized to provide a better understanding of production of these commodities along the Kansas River and its floodplain. Dredging from the river or dredging from the floodplain are both viable operations; the economics of each form of dredging differs along certain reaches of the river. Concern about concentrated dredging in certain reaches of the river has resulted in a number of restrictions imposed on river-dredging operations by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Kansas City District). A copy of those restrictions (USACE, 1990) is included in Appendix A. Kansas regulations (5-43-1 to 5-43-5) for sand dredging within a stream are listed in Appendix B. Transportation of a relatively cheap commodity such as sand and gravel (or limestone) can become the major part of its cost when finally delivered at the job site; therefore, distance to markets is very important in the site-evaluation process. Thickness of the sand and gravel zones, and thickness and distribution of overburden (silts, clays, and lenses of very fine sand) that need to be removed for floodplain operations, are additional factors important in the economic site selection. Consideration of all these issues leads to a better understanding of sand and gravel production from the river and its floodplain.

The third section of the report covers the river's flow and movement of the coarse sediment as bed load within the channel. Construction of large dams on tributaries of the Kansas River, dredging in concentrated areas, riverbank stabilization, and natural changes resulting from major flooding such as in 1951, are all important factors in understanding the river. Before modifications by settlers and government agencies, the Kansas River generated major natural changes of its channel with considerable erosion and deposition of sediment, resulting in changes of the channel's location on the river floodplain. In a study based on historic maps and aerial photographs, Prof. Wakefield Dort and his students at The University of Kansas (Dort, 1976, 1980) clearly showed major lateral migration in large reaches of the channel of the river between 1857 and 1976. During those 121 years, four meander cutoffs resulted in oxbow lakes and extensive lateral shifting of the river channel (Dort, 1976, 1980). Dort's reports also showed evidence of extensive lateral migration of the channel in the last few thousand years prior to the historic period that was covered in detail. With the construction of dams on many of the river's tributaries, the movement of sediment and flow regime of the river have changed considerably. This section of the report examines the movement of sediment under today's conditions and makes recomendation for further study.

Water supply from the Kansas River and its floodplain is not discussed in this document, although water supply in terms of quality and quantity is very important to both the agricultural interests and to the residents of the corridor area. This topic currently is being extensively studied by several State and Federal agencies as part of the Governor's Water Quality Initiative.

Without the presence of the Kansas River and the multitude of natural resources that it provides, the population of northeast Kansas would be much less dense. However, it is those demands for recreation, industrial minerals, and a quality water supply that brings into the political arena the conflicts between groups that emphasize certain resources. Recreation is briefly discussed in the fourth part of this report. In that part, previous recreation studies along the Kansas River that were conducted with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE, 1990) as part of a larger water-resources management study of the river.

Emphasis of this report is not the weighting of the benefits of recreation against the importance of the industrial-mineral resources of the river corridor. However, the report does provide information that the Kansas Geological Survey feels is important for future decisions that will be made concerning the Kansas River and its resources.


Dort, W., Jr., 1976, Channel migration investigation, historic channel change maps, Kansas River tributaries, bank stabilization component, Kansas and Osage rivers, Kansas study: The University of Kansas, Department of Geology, (for) U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, unpaginated.

________, 1980, Recent gradational and channel-migration history of the Kansas River; a guide for floodplain management--project completion report: Kansas Water Resources Research Institute, Contribution 213, 80 p.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1990, Final regulatory report and environmental impact statement--Commercial dredging activities on the Kansas River, Kansas: Kansas City District, Kansas City, Missouri, 78 p. (plus appendices).

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Kansas Geological Survey, Kansas River Corridor Study
Electronic version Jan. 13, 1998.
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