Survey encourages Kaw advocate
From its banks Saturday, the Kansas River looked like a crinkled ribbon of blue.
It was an illusion caused by the high winds. From the river itself, the Kaw's true nature was apparent, Kansas Riverkeeper Laura Calwell said.
"It's muddier than usual, really from the heavy rains this week," she said at a brief stop at the De Soto boat ramp.
The rains also swelled the river from near bank to bank, providing Calwell, R.J. Stephenson of Tonganoxie and four fellow Friends of the Kaw members a 5 mph hour current as they paddled Friday and Saturday from Lawrence to the Cedar Creek boat ramp.
The group was doing one of the last legs of a survey of the river from Junction City, where the Smoky Hill and Republican rivers merge to form the Kaw, 170 miles downstream to Kaw Point in Kansas City, Kan.
"We do it because no one else does," Calwell said. "And because it needs to be done."
The survey group looks for illegal activity on the river and makes note of all bridges, outlets and other structures. At the De Soto boat ramp, they had just noted the old Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant intake facility and a storm water outlet.
They also made note of the state of vegetation along the river and where its banks are eroding, Calwell said.
The information was notated on the aerial photographs that filled Calwell's clipboard. Stephenson carried a GPS digital camera to provide the survey team with pinpoint documentation of structures and concerns.
"It's a high-dollar camera," he said. "We got it with a grant."
Another grant made the whole survey effort possible, Calwell said.
The group spotted old cars used in the past for bank stabilization, a small tire dump near Lecompton, an abandoned dredge in Topeka and several areas where concrete trucks had cleaned out mixers along the river, Calwell said.
Illegal or troublesome activities are reported to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Environmental Protection Agency or the Corps of Engineers.
"After doing this for a couple of years, I kind of have a feel for which agency to contact," Calwell said. "Sometimes, I'll send a report to one and copy one or two of the other agencies. Sometimes I just make a report to one."
The agencies are all busy and understaffed, Calwell said. Her approach is to be patient and remind them of submitted reports. But she will take a direct approach when needed.
"If I witness or somebody calls me saying they saw green or orange stuff floating on the river, I call 911," she said. "We'll get a hazmat team out there. I don't do it very often, but sometimes it has to be done."
Calwell said river quality had improved as cities upgraded wastewater treatment plants, such as the one that went online in De Soto earlier this year. Friends of the Kaw documentation and lobbying helped spur a recent upgrade at Topeka's Oakland treatment plant, she said.
She and the organization prefer to work with cities and businesses on the river, Calwell said, noting that she served on a committee that helped find a site for a new Lawrence wastewater plant on the Wakarusa River.
It wasn't all work for the survey crew, Stephenson said. The boaters spent Friday night on a sandbar and planned to do the same Saturday east of De Soto before high winds changed plans, he said.
"It was cool, but we had our sleeping bags," he said. "It was beautiful. You could really see the stars."
One of the Friends of the Kaw's goals is to promote the recreational uses of the river and to reacquaint Kansans with its unique environment, Calwell said.
"Before the reservoirs were built in the 1950s and air conditioning, people did recreate on the river because it was cool," she said. "Then people started going to the big lakes or staying inside.
"The river become out of sight, out of mind. It got the reputation of a dirty, nasty place."
To help overturn that perception and increase awareness of the river, the Friends of the Kaw welcomed the city of De Soto's decision this month to spend $676,000 for the first phase of a river front park near the city's West Bottom's boat ramp, Calwell said. She was also encouraged by the Topeka/Shawnee County Riverfront Authority's efforts to improve the recreational opportunities along the river in that town (Last week, Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, said she would introduce legislation in January that would create an authority in De Soto based on the Topeka legislation).
The more people who get involved with the river, the more advocates it has, Calwell said.
"If people come down to the river, they will get interested in the river," she said. "That's what we want -- just getting people out on it and enjoying it.
"It's beautiful in its own right."