For Release November 2, 1999

How Badly Polluted are our Rivers?

by Chuck Otte, County Extension Agent

The times they are a changing, and the answer isnít blowing in the wind, itís coming down the streams and rivers. The surface waters in Kansas have been under intense scrutiny for some time now. It seems like every year weíve been hearing about how Kansas rivers are the most polluted in the country. And the more they talk the more concerned the public becomes with whether they should even be getting near the water!

So what is the situation with Kansas surface water resources? Are they the most polluted in the country? Are they safe to be in, near or around? Your first instinct is that something must be seriously wrong. Rivers that arenít listed as polluted in Nebraska, enter Kansas and immediately become polluted. What is going on!?

Well, itís sort of a good news, bad news situation. Kansas has one of the best, if not the best, surface water monitoring programs in the country. We have a very good handle on the quality of the surface water in our state. The bad news is we have one of the best surface water monitoring programs in the country. We know what our water quality situation is from one end of the state to the other. And all the reports you are hearing are true. There are some seriously impaired (sounds better than polluted) streams, rivers and lakes in Kansas.

Are we that drastically worse than all the other states, especially those states around us? Probably not. But go back to that good news/bad news I just talked about. We have problems and we know what our problems are. The other states have problems, they just havenít taken the time to quantify how bad or how widespread they are. I guess you could say that for these other states, ignorance is bliss.

Weíve known this information for quite a few years. So has everyone else. A lot of the water quality conditions were/are in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. In 1995 the Kansas Natural Resources Council and the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the EPA for not enforcing the Clean Water Act. Iíll skip a lot of the in between stuff and jump to the end result. In April of 1998 the litigation was settled and the state of Kansas was given eight years to establish and enact methods to start to clean up the surface waters of Kansas.

Keep in mind that many of the "pollutants" or impairments are things like dissolved oxygen depletion, fecal coliform bacteria, siltation and excessive aquatic plants. It also includes such things as ammonia, chloride, chlordane, zinc, atrazine and alachlor. Some of these can be fairly nasty, others are nuisance types of contaminants. But they all can have negative impacts on the many different functions that we use water for.

Part of this plan was also to establish and assign priorities to the different watersheds and bodies of water. The higher the priority the sooner the program would go to work on that area. The good news is that the Kansas/Lower Republican River Basin, which includes most of Geary County) was at the top of the list. The bad news is that the Kansas/Lower Republican River basin is at the top of the list.

The one important part of this whole process has been the establishment of total maximum daily loads or TMDLs. These are the quantities of contaminants that the water can hold before they are considered impaired. This is important because it may well change how we all do a lot of things on a daily basis so as to protect our surface water resources. In my column next week Iíll go into more details on TMDLs.


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