Historically, the Quivira wetlands were primarily sand flats that were seasonally covered with water through rainfall and aquifer flow. The water was primarily saline (salty), a result of subterranean salt deposits near enough to the surface to affect the groundwater that percolated to the surface. Some above-ground salt deposits resulted from evaporation. Although many areas at Quivira still strongly exhibit this pattern, use patterns by settlers, duck hunting clubs, and early Refuge management practices have changed many wetlands to exhibit more freshwater qualities.
Quivira receives water from three primary sources: rainfall, aquifer flow, and stream flow from Rattlesnake Creek. Periodic rainfall often fills wetlands throughout the Refuge, especially in spring and early summer. Many areas are flat, and drainage is often slow. Rainfall also supplies water to Rattlesnake Creek, which has a fairly large drainage basin to the south and west of Quivira. Rattlesnake Creek enters Quivira at Little Salt Marsh, then flows north through through the Refuge, eventually emptying into the Arkansas River. Most of the water supplied to Quivira's water units are diverted from this creek. Additionally, annual input of water into many of Quivira's water units, particularly in and near Big Salt Marsh, comes from aquifer groundwater surface flow.
Rattlesnake Creek within Quivira
Quivira's wetlands are unique due to the high concentration of salt in many areas. Salinity (or salt) levels in the water varies depending on rainfall, runoff from rainfall, and the depth of the water. Many areas have a high enough salinity to support salt-tolerant plant species such as inland salt grass (Distichlis spicata), alkali sacaton (Sporobolus airoides), and seepweed (Suaeda caceoliformis).
Salt Flats near Little Salt Marsh
Early hunting clubs worked to channel the creek to flow directly into the Little Salt Marsh. Additional canals were later added, providing the entire area with a more dependable water supply. Today, there are 21 miles of canals and numerous water control structures divert water to over 34 wetlands ranging in size from 10 to 1,500 acres and totaling over 6,000 acres of marshlands. Water levels in each unit are varied seasonally and/or annually depending on management goals.
Water control structure
Many of Quivira's wetlands are managed as Moist Soil Units. Water is supplied to the unit prior to the summer, then the water basins are allowed to dry. During this period, moist soil plants such as grasses, sedges, rushes, and smartweeds grow, bloom, and seed. Water is returned to the basin, allowing a significant food supply for waterfowl.
Moist soil plants
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The tallest North American bird, and one of the rarest: now numbering about 600 in the world, there were once as few as 16.