Kings Creek: A Prairie Stream
A prairie stream is a unique ecosystem, which supports organisms that otherwise could not survive in the dry prairie climate. Prairie streams are characterized by periodic drought, intermittent flow, and flash floods, with specialized inhabitants able to withstand the variable conditions.
Kings Creek is one of the tributaries in the Kansas River watershed. Actually, Kings Creek flows into McDowell Creek, which flows into the Kansas River. Kings Creek is the largest stream on the Konza Prairie Biological Station, approximately five miles in length. Its 1,059 hectare (2,617 acre) watershed and its headwaters are entirely within the boundaries of the native tallgrass ecosystem of Konza Prairie. It is an ideal place to study what the character of a relatively, undisturbed, unpolluted Flint Hills creek was like historically. The US Geological Survey has been collecting data on Kings Creek for more than 20 years and considers it a benchmark stream for comparison to all similar streams now impacted by man.
Average annual precipitation in the Flint Hills is 835 millimeters (33 inches), which falls mainly during late spring and early summer. Localized thunderstorms can dump large amounts of rainfall causing flash flooding. Plant and animal life in Kings Creek must be adapted to the variable climate to survive. The vegetation surrounding Kings Creek influences their reaction to these events. Underground tallgrass prairie plant roots form a thick mat, which hold the soil in place and soak up rainfall, delaying its entry into the stream channel. Erosion is not noticeable on the prairie. However, if the soil is already saturated, rainfall moves over the surface and into the stream channel quickly resulting in a rapid raise of the water and a flash flood. In a high-water event, such as this, the water rises quickly up to ten or fourteen feet, and forms a wall, which crashes downstream in the channel. The stream channel is scoured, which means the fast moving water carries rocks, debris, plants, and organisms downstream leaving behind a stream channel whose shape has drastically changed.
Geology of the Flint Hills also affects Kings Creek. This region is characterized by alternating layers of permeable limestone and impermeable shale. As rainfall filters into the soil it slows as it moves through cracks in the limestone and then collects in the shale layers. This results in water moving horizontally to the edge of a hill, forming seeps and springs. The headwaters of Kings Creek are perennial springs, which begin in the upland prairie. The perennial springs and pools are important shelter for stream organisms such as fish, crustaceans and insects during periods of drought.
For an introduction to long-term changes on Kings Creek, click on "Geomorphology".
Click on "Stream Invertebrates" for information on life in Kings Creek.
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