Saving Water, Providing Jobs: A KERCulean Effort

KERC Lake Wabaunsee, 1934 KERC workers clear timber at the site of Lake Wabaunsee, 1934 (photo courtesy Greg Hoots)

In 1934, Kansas faced two major problems: a lack of jobs and a lack of water. The Water Conservation Program, spearheaded by the Kansas Emergency Relief Committee (KERC), aimed to take care of both at once.

A 1934 flyer for the KERC’s Water Conservation Program declared that, “The Water Conservation Program, as part of the Drought Relief Service, is designed to aid in relieving destitution actually resulting from drought conditions.” The program strove to fulfill its mission by constructing municipal lakes and farm ponds, and repairing levee and flood systems. It employed jobless laborers in order to solve the state’s drought-related problems.

All told, the program built or began construction on 27 lakes across the state, including those located in Bourbon, Atchison, Hodgeman, Linn, Harper, Graham, Wabaunsee, Decatur, Woodson, and Brown Counties. Bourbon County Lake, one of the largest, located near Fort Scott, took an average of 365 men per week for 53 weeks to construct the lake using a dam. The men worked more than 19,000 days in a region starved for work.

Lakes served as reservoirs for municipal water supplies and enabled water-based recreation like boating, fishing, and swimming.

The same, dual-purpose, environmental and recreational thinking went into KERC’s farm pond program, which built 2,992 ponds in 1934 and 1935. In exchange for the labor to build the pond, farm owners signed easements granting county access to the water in case of emergency.

Also important were KERC’s flood relief programs. Somewhat prophetically, KERC set up emergency work relief programs in Kansas during December of 1934. In the spring of 1935, terrible floods ravaged the state. Under KERC’s program, counties telegrammed the nature of their emergency and how much help they needed to the state, who instantly approved work-relief labor to help.

Many counties employed work-relief for preventative measures such as rebuilding levees in advance of the floodwater. These efforts saved property and likely lives. Work-relief labor was also used to bury drowned livestock, repair dams, clean up post-flood messes, and repair roads. One work-relief crew in Cheyenne County rescued a family atop a house floating down the river from Colorado. On its roof, trapped for days, were a rattlesnake, a coyote, and five humans, each too absorbed with their own predicaments to bother one another.

All told, during the 1935 flood, 61 relief projects were authorized in 51 counties, all thanks to KERC’s efforts to both care for Kansas’s waters and its workers. KERC was disbanded in 1937 by order of Governor Walter A. Huxman, in part because many New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration took over providing jobs for the struggling and transient workers of Kansas. Still, many of KERC’s aquatic projects continue to shape Kansas waters today.
Learn more about Kansas’s water history at Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition on display in Eudora at the Community Museum from June 24 to August 6, 2017 and its partner exhibition in at the Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library and Environmental Center in Kansas City, KS.

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