And now the news: Some kids went swimming in the Arkansas River below the Pierceville Bridge today.

That may not seem newsworthy to anyone who grew up in the East, where a river is a flowing body of water with depth and current determined by Mother Nature.

But on the brown, dusty western plains, where a river is only a river to the extent that the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation make it so, water in the Arkansas (pronounced ar-KAN-zass in this state) is a marvel that has subordinated such concerns as tax reform and hijackings in news reports.

For the first time since the great Arkansas Valley flood -- 20 years ago this week -- the Arkansas is flowing this summer through a 200-mile stretch of western Kansas where the river has been only a sandy gulch for the last century.

Regional newspapers have tracked the water's daily progress eastward from the Colorado mountains the way the national news media followed the westward journey of the Olympic torch last summer.

People are making daylong excursions so their children can see the wonder of water in the river. The valley is awash in politicians using the historic occasion to underline their arguments over a resource more precious to the West than gold or oil.

Kansas Attorney General Bob Stephan flew over the revived river last week on an inspection tour. "It was awesome," he reported. "Even Colorado couldn't steal that much water."

But Stephan assured Kansans that he would not let the tide push back his legal effort to ensure that more water flows from Colorado to the parched plains of this state.

For the moment, however, people here are splashing in their good fortune and wondering how long it will last. The answer to that, according to Russell Smith, is "most of the summer."

Smith manages the U.S. Army engineers' dam at the John Martin Reservoir just west of Lamar, Colo., the dam that determines whether and to what extent the Arkansas will be a river on its twisting course through western Kansas.

"We've had an unusually good snow melt the past three years, and then a lot of rain this spring," Smith said. "When that happens, we open the gates and let the water run." The Arkansas, which begins as melting snow in the Rockies near Leadville, Colo., is the nation's sixth-longest river, running 1,460 miles to its rendezvous with the Mississippi River near Arkansas City, Ark.

For thousands of years the river flowed all that way. But since the 1870s, when settlers began building irrigation ditches to lead the water to their wheat fields, water in the Arkansas has been a sometime thing in this part of Kansas.

Such scarcity sparked human efforts, mostly political, to restore the mighty river.

With the backing of two Senate titans, the late Robert S. Kerr (D-Okla.) and John L. McClellan (D-Ark.), the eastern third of the river became the $1.2 billion McClellan-Kerr project, begun in 1957 and finished in the early '70s, turning river towns at Pine Bluff, Ark., and Catoosa, Okla., into bustling barge ports.

Under the patronage of then-Rep. Wayne Aspinall (D-Colo.), the Army Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation built a series of reservoirs at the western end. "The basic idea of these Colorado projects is conservation," said Smith, manager of the John Martin dam.

"Once you're left of the 100th meridian of longitude , you only get 12, maybe 15 inches of precipitation a year," he said. In contrast, the eastern seaboard gets about 40 inches annually.

"So out west we have to conserve the water we get so you'll have some during the growing season, when you need it. So we build this big dam and store the spring runoff behind it. It's like saving in a bank account."

All summer, Smith opens and closes the dam gates in response to requisitions from several farmers' irrigation cooperatives -- known locally as "ditch companies" -- along the Arkansas Valley.

Normally these withdrawals from the big bank account behind the dam use up all the water by the time the Arkansas reaches the Colorado-Kansas border. From there down to Larned, Kan., where the Pawnee River flows into it, the Arkansas is normally a dry sandbed, holding water only briefly after big rains.

This year, however, Smith's liquid bank had been almost brimful. When the dam's gates were opened on May 26, accordingly, Kansans got out their bathing suits and fishing rods and waited for the river.

Some refused to believe that the water was coming. When radio station KANZ held a contest to guess when the river would arrive here, 120 miles east of the dam, the most common reply was "never."

The first trickle came to Pierceville May 31. Even then, many people found the phenomenon hard to believe. A farmer in Garden City who had driven his pickup across the river every day for years set out on his usual trip last week. The water lapped over his steering wheel before he realized that this day was different.

The presence of water in the Arkansas has whetted Kansans' appetite for more water on a regular basis.

Stephan, the attorney general, has hired a battery of lawyers and engineers to battle the Colorado farmers he says are withdrawing more than their legal share from the river.

Colorado retorts that Kansas is storing illegal quantities of Arkansas water in Lake McKinney, a reservoir east of the state line.

"That's how it is in the West," said Smith. "Even when they've got more than they've had in 20 years, people here have to fight over water."