People planning recreational activities on Oklahoma rivers this Fourth of July week may be surprised to find familiar rivers aren't flowing nearly as fast as they have come to expect.
“The Illinois River is the lowest for this time of year that I've seen in my almost 30 years of being here,” Ed Fite, administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, said of one of Northeastern Oklahoma's most popular float trip destinations.
“It's almost one foot below where it should be ... These are flows that we typically would see at the end of August.”
Jason Lewis, data chief and hydrologist for the Oklahoma U.S. Geological Survey, said his office has already received some reports of streams going dry in the Panhandle and other northern and western portions of the state.
It's common for some streams to go dry in the Panhandle during the summer, but if they stay dry for a long time this year, it will be hard on ranchers because the streams were dry for so long last year, he said.
The state had a fair amount of rain this past spring, but it hasn't had much rain lately and still hasn't recovered hydrologically from last year's devastating drought, Lewis, said.
The U.S. Geological Survey measures and maps stream flows throughout the state. Those maps show that dozens of rivers throughout the state are flowing at rates slower than they would be for nine of out 10 years this time of year.
Plan differently for trip on Illinois River
The Illinois River typically flows at a rate of about 216,000 gallons a minute past the Tahlequah bridge gauge this time of year, Fite said. As of Thursday, it was only flowing at a rate of about 60,000 gallons a minute, he said.
Low flow rates don't mean residents should cancel planned recreational trips, Fite said.
They should just plan a little differently.
It takes a lot longer to float the same distance, so people who have taken daylong 10- or 12-mile float trips in the past should strongly consider taking five- or six-mile trips, he said.
Individuals who follow that advice will have fun, he said. Those who reject it may find themselves exhausted, sunburned and having to pull to the side of the river halfway through their trip to call for help.
“We always recommend people take the six-mile trip, anyway,” said Matt Stephens, manager at War Eagle Resort near Tahlequah. “That's what our employees take.”
Stephens said taking the shorter trip gives people more time to swim and enjoy the river, and they can still make the trip last all day if they want.
There is still enough water to navigate in the rafts, canoes and kayaks available locally for rent, Stephens said.
“A lot more people are taking kayaks this year,” he said.
Fite said he recommends kayaks and canoes over rafts when the water is low.
Flow rate is too low
on Kiamichi River
Down near Antlers, people typically float Southeastern Oklahoma's Kiamichi River about four months out of the year.
They're not floating it now.
“Absolutely not,” said Ed Barkemeyer, manager of K-River Campground near Antlers. “If you took a canoe now, you would be doing a lot of backpacking with your canoe.”
Kiamichi River flows that are typically about 155 cubic feet per second in the area this time of year are now down to about 3, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Nearly stagnant water and warm water temperatures have local officials warning visitors not to get their heads under water to avoid potentially getting severely ill from amoebas in the water, which can occasionally even cause death.
Kiamichi River visitors can still have a great time, Barkemeyer said.
“Catfishing is always good,” he said. “It's still pretty and green.”
“We're pretty dry across the state right now,” Lewis said. “I would say we're lower than we were last year at this time going into the summer.
“Even though the meteorological rainfall is about normal, hydrologically we're low. We're low because we never really recovered from last summer. Even though we got enough rain this spring and winter, because we started out lower than we normally do, that didn't bring it up to normal.”