Activist claims Kaw needs a bath
Significant water-quality progress made in last 30 years, state official says
There are stretches along the Kansas River from Perry to Shawnee that can act as a time machine, said Kansas Riverkeeper Dave Murphy.
"You can go out on a fine spring day, and it's just you, the sandbars and the wildlife," he said. "Once you get past Lawrence, you don't see any direct evidence of humankind. When you're down in the river, you don't see out of the floodplain. You're surrounded by calm and a natural beauty.
"If you spend the night on a sandbar, you're going to spend it by yourself. Name another place you can go now and get away from it all?"
Riverkeeper Murphy gets his title by serving as the executive director of the like-named Kansas Riverkeeper, a grass-roots environmentalist group associated with the national Water Keeper Alliance. His job includes frequent trips and "floats" on the Kaw to monitor its water quality. Other trips take him to Topeka as an advocate and lobbyist for the river.
The Kaw is one of three rivers in Kansas owned by the state and, therefore, open to canoeing, fishing and other recreational activities without the permission of adjacent landowners. But Murphy said flood control measures and barge traffic made the Missouri River too swift and dangerous for causal boating, and the Arkansas River is now dry most of its way through the state because of dams in Colorado.
By contrast, Kansas River outfitters renting canoes and kayaks to outdoor enthusiasts wanting to experience the river is a growing industry.
"The Kansas River is one of the best recreational options in the state," Murphy said. "When outfitters set out the shingle on the river a few years ago, they couldn't rent a boat. Now, you better have your reservations two weeks in advance."
Unfortunately, Murphy said the increased emphasis on the Kaw's recreational activities came at a time when it was increasingly polluted.
In its recently-released 2002 report, American Rivers ranked Kansas River as the fourth most-endangered river in America. The Missouri River topped the list.
In recent years, high concentrations of a termite-control chemical were found in the lower reaches of the river in Johnson County. Other sources of pollution are fertilizer and herbicide that either run off farm fields or are carried into the Kaw's tributaries with soil that washes off the fields.
But Murphy, who grew up in Johnson County and now lives in southern Douglas County, said the bigger problem was fecal coliform bacteria. The riverkeeper blamed it on livestock feedlot operations far upstream from the confluence of Republican and Smokey Hill rivers, which marks the Kansas River's start at Junction City.
Murphy said he has proof in the form of two reports the Kansas Department of Health and Environment was required to file by the Federal Clean Water Act. One report shows the Kaw and all major tributaries polluted by fecal coliform bacteria. The second shows the source was "clearly agricultural," he said.
The Kansas Legislature caved in to pressure from the farm lobby last year when it passed a clean water bill environmentalists dismissed as the dirty water bill, Murphy said. The legislation defined the flow rate of rivers and streams that would be tested for water quality, Murphy said. The bill's flow-rate standard excluded 40 percent of the state's streams and all those in western Kansas, he said.
That allows large feedlots to hide out upstream where the KDHE can't monitor their activity.
Karl Mueldener, director of the KDHE's Bureau of Water, said the Kaw had actually gotten cleaner in the last 30 years as state and federal government leaned on local governments to improve sewage treatment plants.
Eudora and De Soto residents can look at their sewer bills and see the investment cities have made in wastewater infrastructure and staff training, he said.
The list of endangered rivers is not a list of the most polluted rivers, but a list put together from nominations forwarded by local environmental groups, Mueldener said.
"One year the Kansas River didn't make the list," Mueldener said. "I asked one of their members, 'how come it wasn't on the list?' He said, 'Oh, nobody got around to nominating it this year.'"
Still, Mueldener said work needed to be done to improve the Kansas River's water quality. Improvements made thus far were from action taken against source-point pollution, Mueldener said. It is generally conceded that was the easy phase, and the task of reducing non-source pollution, or pollutants originated as runoff from upstream, will be much more difficult.
The feedlot operations could cause non-source pollution, Mueldener said. But so could storm-water runoff from the increasingly developed Kaw Valley, he said.
Mueldener said the stream-way definition in last year's legislation wouldn't prevent him and his department from finding offenders or forcing compliance with proper water quality practices. As he talked, Mueldener viewed a photograph of cattle standing hip deep in a stream surrounded by a barren lot.
"I'll be having a little talk with them," he said. "I might have to jump through a few more hoops because of the bill, but I can still have the controls to say you need to make improvements."