Lake Kahola, Kansas

James S. and Susan W. Aber

Table of contents
Introduction & history Kite aerial photography
Geology & topography Water supply & quality
Wetland environments References

Introduction and history

Lake Kahola is a relatively small, man-made reservoir located in the Flint Hills of east-central Kansas. Drought conditions in the early 1930s and severe water shortages for the city of Emporia were the reasons the city decided to build a reservoir on Kahola Creek. A bond election for $150,000 was approved in 1935, and a federal government grant was received to fund 45% of the cost. The project included acquisition of more than 800 acres, a 2000-foot-long earth-filled dam with stone facing, a 400-foot-wide spillway, weir dam and bridge over the spillway, and other improvements.

During the nineteenth century, this location was part of the Kansa Indian Reservation, and they frequently camped beside the creek. The remaining Kansa people relocated in 1873 into Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The name Kahola means "by the living waters," which refers to many clear springs that feed the creek and lake (Kahola 1940-41). The dam was completed in 1937, and total cost of the project was $242,000 (Kahola 1940-41). The spillway weir dam has an elevation of 1269 feet, and the lake covers approximately 400 acres (~160 ha) when full. In the past, the lake served as a reserve water supply for the city of Emporia (Aber 1990).

Artistic sketch of Lake Kahola with dam and spillway in the foreground
and south bluffs in the background. Adapted from Kahola (1940-41).
1938 photograph from the southern side in vicinity of cabin 69
looking toward the northeast. Courtesy of D. Montgomery.

The lake was developed early for summer cabins and recreation. Sixty cabin sites were established by 1944, and the lake became well known in the 1950s for sailing, water-skiing, swimming, and fishing. During the 1960s and 1970s, the recreational significance of the lake began to dwindle, however, with construction of larger reservoirs in eastern Kansas by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lake Kahola now has approximately 200 cabin sites plus a year-round caretaker in residence (Aber 1990).

Lake Kahola straddles the Chase-Morris county line, and an old Indian treaty boundary runs across the southern edge of the lake. Portion of the Lake Kahola, Kansas 7.5-minute topographic map (1972). Map obtained from USGS Store.

Through the twentieth century, building lots were leased from the city under a long-term arrangement with the Kahola Park Cabin Owners Association. Early in this century, however, the city began the complex legal process of selling the land to the cabin owners association. This sale was completed in 2007, when the renamed Kahola Homeowners Association (KHA) took private ownership of the lake and surrounding property.

Kahola Homeowners Association—KHO.

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Kite aerial photography

The authors and their students from Emporia State University often utilize Lake Kahola for testing equipment and methods of kite aerial photography and conducting geological exercises. Favorable wind blows most of the time in the surrounding Flint Hills region, and the lake offers many interesting natural and man-made features for low-height aerial views.

Kite aerial photographs
Winter overviews with partial ice cover

View to northwest

View to northeast

View eastward

Over the years, development of cabin sites at Lake Kahola had proceeded in a somewhat piecemeal manner, which was aggravated by the lack of original survey markers. The existing plat of lease lots was a schematic blueprint chart of unknown age, which was not a legally valid survey. This problem became exacerbated in recent years by the construction of increasingly large recreational homes and numerous garages, boathouses, docks, and other structures. Two issues were of primary concern: 1) wise management for future development, and 2) arbitration of disputes between adjacent lot owners.

Recognizing these issues, the cabin owners association began an effort in 2000 to place permanent survey markers at the corners of all building lots in the park. To supplement the ground-based survey markers and lot measurements, large-scale airphotos were selected as the tool for documenting lake-shore development and lot boundaries. We conducted vertical kite aerial photography during the winter, leaf-off period in order to obtain views with minimal obstruction from trees (Aber and Aber 2003). Lot boundary markers were identified with additional ground survey.

Left: portion of the original plat of Lake Kahola cabin lots; a highly schematic diagram that lacks any georeferencing (date unknown). Right: actual lot boundaries marked by red dots annotated on a vertical kite aerial photograph. Adapted from Aber et al. (2010).

Kahola Lake 2002 aerial survey.

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Geology and topography

The Flint Hills form a prominent erosional upland that stands well above lower plains to the east and west. Elevations in the vicinity of Lake Kahola range from 1200 feet to over 1400 feet (see topo map above). The Flint Hills are underlain by lower Permian limestone and shale layers; this bedrock is nearly horizontal and generally dips slightly toward the west or northwest. Thick cherty limestone units weather to produce residual chert (flint) lag deposits that are highly resistant to erosion and chemical breakdown. Such residual chert is responsible for maintaining high topographic relief and gives the Flint Hills region its name.

Flint Hills bedrock stratigraphy (left). The strata in the Lake Kahola vicinity are indicated by the red line and range from the Neva Limestone (in spillway) to the lower Florence Limestone (on highest hill tops). The Wreford and Florence limestones are particularly thick and contain much chert (flint) as nodules and beds (red triangles).

Diagram adapted from the Kansas Geological Survey.

Eskridge Shale and water fall in lake spillway

Wreford Limestone above Speiser Shale (red)

Residual chert on hill top

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Water supply and quality

The name Kahola is derived from an Indian word meaning spring water. In fact, many springs feed the lake from its southern bluff due to local dip of bedrock toward the northwest. The lake is fed also by surface runoff—Kahola Creek, which drains a relatively undeveloped prairie grassland. As a result of ground-water recharge, the lake is resistant to short-term drought in spite of having a relatively small drainage basin about 16 square miles (~40 sq. km). The water remains relatively cool; it freezes over partly or completely most winters, but ice-fishing is not allowed.

Winter views
Left: vertical shot of ice in a small cove on southeastern side of lake. The circular ice patterns with concentric rings and radial cracks result from irregular ice freezing. Right: hundreds of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) resting on the edge of ice toward the western side of the lake.

The drainage basin consists almost entirely of tallgrass prairie utilized mainly for cattle grazing, which results in excellent water quality in the lake (Schroeder 1990). The upstream (western) end of the lake has developed into a wetland nature preserve, and strict regulations have kept out invasive
zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) so far.

Left: typical prairie scene with cattle grazing on lush tallgrass adjacent to Lake Kahola. Right: zebra mussel warning sign placed at the entrance to the lake for the July 4th holiday.

A detailed bathymetric and sediment survey of Lake Kahola was undertaken by the Kansas Biological Survey in 2012—see Kahola survey (large pdf file). Sonar sounding was conducted from a small boat to determine water depth. The original creek channel runs along the southern side of the lake, and maximum depth is 30-35 feet near the outlet tower at the southern end of the dam.

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Wetland environment

The shoreline and western portions of Lake Kahola as well as the inlet of Kahola Creek are wetland environments that host typical plants and animals that inhabit shallow water and wet soils. Some of the wetland wildlife are year-round residents, and others use the lake as a stopping point during seasonal migrations.

Left: looking toward the southwestern end of the lake where Kahola Creek enters. The path of the creek is marked by trees in the background in this spring view. Right: upstream from the lake on Kahola Creek seen from canoe.

Of particular interest, a delta environment has grown up at the western end, where Kahola Creek feeds into the lake. This area is set aside as a nature santuary best seen from a canoe or similar small boat. The following pictures were taken at Lake Kahola by the authors (Aber et al. 2012).

Wetland vegetation
Shoreline and emergent
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a deciduous bush or small tree that grows along the rocky south bluff and western shoreline of the lake. It has dazzling white flower clusters in June and July that attract many insects including bees (left) and the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterfly (right).
Water willow (Justicia americana) grows in shallow water along the rocky south bluff and western margin of the lake. It has narrow, willow-shaped leaves, for which the plant is named (left). The small, orchidlike, white flowers attract bees and other insects (right).
Cattail (Typha sp.) to left and arrowhead (Sagittaria sp.) to right are among the most common and recognizable emergent wetland plants around the world. Both are common along the margins of the delta and Kahola Creek inlet to the lake.
Left: large willow (Salix L.) trees behind cattails along the delta margin. Right: small butterfly feeds on pale flowers of pink smartweed (Polygonum bicorne) beside the creek inlet to the lake.

Wetland vegetation
Floating and submerged
American pondweed (Potamogeton nodosus) is a floating-leaved variety of the large pondweed genus. Pondweeds are among the most important food plants for waterfowl (Whitley et al. 1999). Elongated leaves (4-6 inches long) cover the water surface (left), and small flower stalks rise above the surface (right).
Left: submerged pondweed (Potamogeton L.) sends tiny flower stalks barely above the surface. Right: water milfoil (Myriophyllum heterophyllum) prefers cool, slow-moving, slightly alkaline water with high calcium content (Whitley et al. 1999), as in the delta at the southwestern end of the lake.
Algae are primary producers and food sources in many aquatic environments. Algae are present at Lake Kahola on shallow rocky substrates (left) and floating on the surface (right). The amount of algae is generally limited, however, by cool water temperature and low levels of nutrients from the grassland drainage basin.

Wetland wildlife
Left: bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest in large trees next to the lake. Right: individual American coot (Fulica americana) slowly cruises along in search of aquatic vegetation to eat. Coots often feed with and are mistaken for ducks, but coots are not ducks.
Left: mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) appear occasionally in large numbers during migration. Seen here resting on ice. Right: longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis) displays brilliant orange and turquoise colors. This male is quite possibly guarding a nest in the gravel bottom of Kahola Creek.
Left: water strider (Aquarius remigis) on a shallow clear stream. Distortions on water show where the legs have depressed the surface tension and refracted sunlight creating the dark spots on gravel bed. Right: whirligig beetles (family Gyrinidae) move rapidly in large groups half in and half out of the water.

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All text and images © J.S. and S.W. Aber
Last update 2017.