Dry Lake

Scott County, Kansas

J.S. and S.W. Aber


Dry Lake is an ephemeral lake situated in an enclosed drainage basin on the High Plains in Scott County, west-central Kansas. Dry Lake is ~3 miles (4 km) long and about half a km wide, when full, which is a rare occurrence. This region is semiarid, typically receiving less than 20 inches (50 cm) of precipitation per year. Annual snowfall and rain amounts vary greatly from year to year, and the region is subject to recurring droughts and occasional floods.

Satellite image of Dry Lake vicinity, on the High Plains of west-central Kansas. Active crops (mostly winter wheat) appear bright green, and fallow fields are pink and maroon colors. The checkerboard pattern reflects alternate-year cropping. This image dataset was acquired on May 16, 2007, just two days before our initial observations at Dry Lake. Landsat false-color image based on visible, near-infrared, and mid-infrared bands. Dataset obtained from USGS Glovis; image processing by JSA.

The lake has become a focal point for multi-year observations of the wetland conditions with kite and blimp aerial photography. We first conducted aerial photography at Dry Lake on May 18, 2007, which was an exceptionally wet year. Cheryl Unruh and Dave Leiker assisted us. We subsequently have returned to document the response of the lake to annual climatic variations in this relatively dry region. The lake has fluctuated between partial water coverage, completely dry, and full-water conditions. Brenda Zabriskie and Gayla Corley joined our efforts in 2010-11. We hope to continue this endeavor for several more years in the future. Following is a brief overview of our efforts to date.

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
2012 2013 2014 2015

Kite aerial photographs, May 2007

Moderate breeze from southwest, clear sky,
Sutton Flowform 16, Canon S70 camera rig.

Overviews toward northeast (left) and southwest (right). Lake is completely full of water following heavy winter snow and spring rain runoff. Sun glint highlights wind-driven wave patterns on the water. Waves are eroding sediment from the shore and shallow lake floor. Note small overturned boat for scale.
Left: closer view of southern shore with small boat. Salt cedar bushes grow along bank that marks the edge of the lake basin. Right: ground crew, from left: Cheryl Unruh, JSA, SWA, and Dave Leiker.

Kite aerial photographs, May 2008

Strong SSE wind, small delta on high-wind
bridle, completely clear sky, JSA & SWA.

Overviews toward northeast (left) and southwest (right). Most water of previous year has evaporated. A moist mud flat occupies the center of the basin with a salt flat around the margin. A series of descending shorelines can be seen in the pattern of salt accumulation.
Closer views of the southern margin of the dry lake basin. Distinctive zones and patterns are visible in the salt and mud. This salt has a definite "table salt" taste. The mud and salt flats are quite wet; impossible to walk far from the vegetated edge without sinking into the saturated soil.
Ground crew (JSA & SWA) conducting KAP from the southern side of Dry Lake with the small boat in the same spot as the previous year.

Kite aerial photographs, May 2009

Strong NNE wind, small delta on high-wind
bridle, cloudy to clear sky, JSA solo.

Looking toward the west (left) and southwest (right) under partly cloudy sky. Water fills most of the basin except for a narrow mud flat around the edge. The late afternoon sun reflecting from the water surface helps to define the boundary between water and wet mud flat.
Left: overview toward the northeast. A narrow fringe of wet mud and salt surrounds open water in the lake. Streaks on water indicate wind at 20-30 mph. Right: hard crash in pasture south of lake. Tilt servo gear broken, antenna pulled off radio receiver, and titanium frame bent. The result of solo KAP under difficult conditions, but the camera survived and the rig could be repaired.

Kite aerial photographs, May 2010

Strong southerly wind, small delta,
clear sky, JSA & Brenda Zabriskie

Overviews looking toward the northeast (left) and southwest (right). Lake is partly full of orange-brown water, and a dry mud flat surrounds the shoreline. Shortgrass prairie is exceptionally green following a wet spring.
Eastward view over the southern margin of Dry Lake. The red boat seen on the shore in previous years (above) has been moved up onto the prairie (bottom center).
The spotty, pale-green zone in left-center of this scene is a prairie dog town, now protected behind an electric fence.

Blimp and kite aerial photographs, October 2010

JSA, SWA, Gayla Corley & Brenda Zabriskie

Lake is completely dried out with a heavy salt crust well out into the basin. Left: overview from eastern end looking toward the west. Right: view over the western end.
Closeup vertical shot over the southern margin showing distinctive patterns in the salt and mud surface of the dry lake floor. Two people are standing left of center, and the red boat can be seen on the lower left edge.

Kite aerial photographs, May 2011

Variable, light, northerly wind, partly cloudy; large rokkaku
JSA, Brenda Zabriskie & Gayla Corley

Panoramic overview from the eastern end looking westward. Lake remains dry, but most surface salt is gone and mud is quite soft. Saline water is just a few inches below the surface and tastes like sea water.
Left: western end of Dry Lake basin. Notice how brown the surrounding prairie grass is compared with May of previous year. Right: view across the center of Dry Lake with green winter wheat fields in the background. Lake floor conditions are similar to May 2008.
Kite flyers in open prairie south of the lake basin near the eastern end.

Kite aerial photographs, June 2012

Strong southerly wind, small delta,
hazy sky, JSA & SWA.

The lake basin remains completely dried out with a salt-covered mud flat. Left: Looking toward the southwestern end of the lake basin. Right: the northeastern end of the lake basin.
Close-up shots of the lake basin. Left: intricate patterns in salt accumulation along the shore and the center. Right: green strip of vegetation along margin of basin. Old tire at bottom edge gives scale.
Left: prairie dog town south of the lake basin has expanded over the past couple of years. Right: golden winter wheat field ready for harvest south of the lake basin. The mottled pattern in prairie to lower left is typical of wind-blown silt (loess) that forms the topsoil of the High Plains.

Kite aerial photographs, May 2013

Strong southeasterly wind, small delta,
small puffy clouds, JSA (solo).

Left: overview from the western end looking toward northeast showing nearly the whole lake basin, which is completely dry. Right: view eastward with the prairie dog town along the southern edge of the lake.
Left: close-up shot of the western end with vehicle tracks across the dry lake floor. Right: looking westward showing the prairie dog town, which has expanded considerably over the past few years. Sun glint reveals a puddle of water in an inlet creek.

Kite aerial photographs, August 2014

Moderate northerly wind, large rokkaku,
small puffy clouds, JSA & SWA.

Overviews looking toward the northeast (left) and northwest (right). This is the first time the lake has held water since 2010. Repeated heavy summer rains replenished soil moisture, filled small puddles and ponds, and generated sufficient runoff to refill the lake basin partially.
Left: view to north with kite flyers at lower center in a prairie dog town. Right: water body in center of lake displays a distinctive yellowish-green color, presumably caused by algae and drowned weedy vegetation.
Left: our normal access road (lower left) was blocked by mud in a small playa depression (scene center); we had to deviate across the fallow field. Right: extensive prairie dog town is evident in the fallow field; kite flyers in upper left corner.
Ground views. Left: extensive mud flat marks the southern margin of the lake, and saltcedar (Tamarix ramosissima) bushes occupy the terrace along the edge of the basin. Right: cattle grazing in a water-filled playa near Dry Lake, a rare sight on the High Plains.

Kite aerial photographs, June 2015

Moderate northerly wind, large rokkaku,
small puffy clouds, JSA & SWA.

Overviews looking from the western end toward the northeast. The lake is completely full following repeated spring rains. Water has not been this abundant since the high stand of 2007, when our annual observations began.
Views toward the north (left) and northwest (right). The milky water color reflects suspended sediment stirred up from the shallow lake floor by wind-driven waves.
Left: authors conducting KAP next to the prairie-dog town on the southern side of the lake. Right: Swainson's hawk (Buteo swainsoni), which flew all the way from Argentina to breed here. It was cruising for prey over the prairie-dog town and along the lake shore.
Left: small playa depression on the upland south of Dry Lake. Our normal access road was under water, and we had to deviate around the playa. Right: wheat harvest was fully underway during our visit.

During the past two years, drought conditions in central and western Kansas have diminished from extreme and exceptional categories. May of 2015 was exceptionally wet across the southern Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions (see statewide precipitation). In fact, May 2015 was the wettest month for the whole United States since records began in 1895 (NOAA 2015). By late June 2015, drought was completely gone in the Dry Lake vicinity (see drought monitor).


Thanks to local landowners for permission to conduct aerial photography.

Prairie dangers at Dry Lake
Prickly pear cactus, a small rattlesnake, and prairie dog burrows.

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All text and imagery by the authors.
Last update July 2015.