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The newest water playground in Southwest Kansas is Horsethief Reservoir. Named for Horsethief Canyon near the dam, the new reservoir provides both flood control and recreational opportunities to Kansas visitors. The reservoir was a long time in arriving, having first been discussed in the 1930s. The dam was finally approved and completed in 2009, and the reservoir filled by 2010. A 7,000-foot earthen dam across Buckner Creek transformed a mostly dry landscape into a 450-acre lake open for camping, boating, water-skiing, swimming, picnicking, fishing and hunting. An 1,100-acre park surrounds the lake, offering a haven for birds and wildlife. Recreational development is just beginning at Horsethief Reservoir, but already it has evolved into a favored site for area residents to enjoy the great Kansas out-of-doors.
Although the project was a long time in the planning stages, the recreational opportunities are ahead of schedule. The completed lake filled faster than expected due to a wet year, and Kansas Fish and Wildlife quickly moved to plant fish in the waters. Channel catfish were stocked the first summer and have already grown to a catch-able size. By 2012, crappie, walleye and largemouth bass were being caught. As boat ramps were installed during the excavation process, there are already boat launching facilities in several areas along the shoreline. This is big news in Kansas, which has almost no natural lakes and is ordinarily very arid most of the year. Dodge City, 20 miles to the south, has added the 'fishing lake' to its list of tourist attractions. All types of watercraft are allowed, including jet-skis. All watercraft must pay a fee to launch and follow all posted rules. The lake has already proven a draw to sports fans engaged in kite-boarding. Water-skiing and tubing are favorites activities.
Forty-two electrified campsites with water are provided, with other areas available to primitive camping. A shower building and restrooms are offered close to the camping area, and one rustic cabin is open and available for rental. A park office holds a small camp store and sells fishing and hunting licenses and permits for camping, boat launching and specialized activities along with camping supplies. Seasonal rental of some campsites is permitted, and annual or daily passes may be purchased for boat launching for a nominal fee.
Although no formal trails are yet laid out, the entire park is open for hiking. A favorite destination is the bluffs overlooking the south side of the reservoir. Some areas can provide for rough hiking, so beginning trekkers are reminded to keep their physical condition in mind because the area can get quite hot in summer. A 12-target archery range provides space for bow and arrow fans to practice their sport. There are picnic grounds, and playground areas will likely be provided in the future. Hunting is allowed in designated areas in-season with the proper permits. Both hunters and nature lovers enjoy the increasing numbers of deer, turkey, pheasant, geese, beaver and ducks beginning to make their home at Horsethief Reservoir. Guided hunts will be offered in the future.
The small city of Jetmore is eight miles east of Horsethief Reservoir and could be called its 'home town'. Jetmore is already benefitting from increased tourism to the lake and encourages visitors to stop in town for supplies and services. A typical Kansas town with more than a century's worth of history, the Jetmore Museum offers a glimpse into pioneer life from the 1860s showcased in the first limestone home built in the town. The town also holds a municipal golf course and such services as auto repair and hair stylists. A handful of restaurants and artisan studios round out the mix in this small prairie town.
Historic Dodge City is 20 miles to the south, offering a variety of annual events and preserved historical sites that celebrate its glory days as a cow-town of national renown. A full complement of lodgings is available in and near Dodge City including new hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, guest cottages and RV parks. Historic Main Street offers a walking tour, and the famed Boot Hill Museum complements the Gunfighters Wax Museum and the new casino nearby. Ten days of western fun ensues each year during Dodge City Days, featuring such activities as a rodeo, indoor craft show, professional barbecue cook-off, golf tournament, classic car show and other activities. Dodge City also boasts a raceway and several venues that produce expositions, theater productions and soccer.
Wide public support was required to bring Horsethief Reservoir into existence. Although the WPA discussed the site as a possible lake in the 1930s and the Army Corps of Engineers looked into the possibility in later years, it wasn't until local businesses and farmers within the Pawneee Watershed District convinced local governments to take action that the dam actually was built. Four counties within the district voted to impose a 1.5% sales tax on purchases, earmarked for development of the lake.
The process hasn't been without controversy. Early critics were concerned that Buckner Creek didn't regularly carry enough water to fill the reservoir. Others feared that the dam would disrupt the sparse water flows downstream. The planning committee expected the reservoir to take about four years to fill; they were pleasantly surprised when the first year was inordinately wet and the reservoir filled almost full. Hydrologists believe that the regular release of water back into Buckner Creek will serve to improve wildlife habitat downstream by providing water during long dry spells. The Pawnee Watershed Joint District No. 81 is in charge of all dam and reservoir operations and is still fine-tuning operational plans to assure optimum use of the water and regulations for water release. Most experts in the area believe that Horsethief Reservoir will be the last large dam to be built in western Kansas, because the permitting process has become so restrictive as to preclude any plans for another. The Watershed District therefore is taking great pains to make sure that Horsethief's water is best used to serve everyone's needs.
You don't have to live in southwestern Kansas to take advantage of what the local residents have created. Visitors are welcomed and encouraged. Although the reservoir is so new that it isn't yet included on many maps, anyone in Jetmore or Dodge City can easily direct you. The lake gets more beautiful every day. And those catfish get bigger! Pack the fishing tackle and hook up the boat trailer. Come and experience the joys of a brand-new lake and enjoy some very old pastimes.
*Statistics are estimates as official figures have not yet been released.
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