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Many rivers to suck dry

Long Story Short

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When I was growing up, less than a half-mile from the Arkansas River in western Kansas, the river flowed every day. Old-timers remembered when it was so wide you had to board a ferry to cross. High school kids pedaled their bikes to the river to check fishing lines in the summer. Bordering the river, our farm hosted a cow herd that grazed under a thick canopy of cottonwoods.

In 1965, heavy rains in Colorado brought floodwaters to town, causing $60 million in damage and killing 16 people along the Arkansas. Then, around 1970, the Frying Pan-Arkansas Project — and construction of Pueblo Dam — got underway. Gradually, the riverbed near my hometown dried up, and in places became a mecca for dirt-bikers.

After drought struck in 2002, the area filled with tamarisk — spindly bushes that act like straws to suck the riverbed dry. Now it's choked with them, and there's rarely a trickle of water. As I've driven to Kansas to visit friends and family over the years, my heart has broken to see what's happened.

Tamarisk's aggressive growth has galvanized efforts to defeat it, and some have achieved success. Eradication, though, takes a long, long time — for instance, it took 15 years to clear one 25-mile stretch of riverbank on the Western Slope. And new practices, including deployment of an insect, are controversial. All of which is explained in our feature story, "Bushwhacked," which begins here.

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