Lawrence researchers try to distance themselves from water politics.
While congressional candidates, health officials and environmentalists debated the safety of Kansas drinking water this week, federal scientists based in Lawrence quietly continued their work on a 3-year-old study of herbicide pollution in northeast Kansas waters.
A U.S. Geological Survey researcher in Lawrence also tried to distance the agency and its study from Republican congressional candidate Sam Brownback's claim that atrazine contamination of Kansas waters declined while he headed the Kansas Board of Agriculture.
"That's not our conclusion," Mike Pope, a USGS hydrologist, said Wednesday. "We don't have written conclusions yet on this project. We're still in the midst of collecting data."
A study involves Lake Perry, which drains into the lower Kansas River -- a source of drinking water for Lawrence and other cities.
On Thursday, Brownback's press secretary, Jackie McClaskey, explained that Brownback's claim -- made in television ads and in a debate Wednesday in Pittsburg -- is based on atrazine data collected by the USGS while Brownback was Kansas' agriculture secretary.
Brownback, who faces former Gov. John Carlin in the 2nd Congressional District race, headed the state agency from 1986 to 1993.
In July 1992, when the USGS started long-term automatic testing of Perry Lake waters northwest of Lawrence, the average atrazine concentration there was about 3.5 parts per billion, McClaskey said.
That was higher than the federal drinking water limit of 3 parts per billion.
A year later, when Brownback left office, the average in July was 2.9 parts per billion.
"The average went down," McClaskey said.
However, it went right back up a year later, into the range of 3.2 to 3.5 parts per billion, according to Pope, a researcher who has helped gather the data. The level has hovered above 3 parts per billion in the months since then. Those are the highest sustained readings yet recorded during the study, Pope said.
McClaskey said that doesn't affect Brownback's claim of success in reducing atrazine runoff during his tenure at the Agriculture Department because the latest data was collected after he left the post.
Atrazine has been used extensively to kill weeds on corn and milo fields in northeast Kansas since the early 1960s. It has also caused tumors in laboratory animals and seeped into streams and rivers that feed Perry Lake, which itself drains into the lower Kansas River, a source of drinking water for more than 370,000 people -- including those in Lawrence.
Municipal water companies have been among the leading advocates of atrazine restrictions, because without such restrictions the utilities could face higher filtering expenses.
In 1991 a technical advisory panel, which included representatives of government agencies, environmental groups and agriculture organizations, urged the Kansas Board of Agriculture to impose mandatory restrictions on atrazine use in the Delaware River region that drains into Perry Lake.
Instead, in establishing the nation's first-ever Pesticide Management Area, the board recommended voluntary limitations on atrazine use in the 1,100-square-mile Delaware Basin.
The board also asked the USGS to study the program's success in lowering atrazine runoff.
"As far as Sam is concerned, voluntary controls are better than mandatory controls," McClaskey said. "Government is already too big, on our backs and in our faces. The people are better able to regulate such things than the government. People respond negatively to mandatory controls. He supported the voluntary control."
Soon after the voluntary measures were approved they were superseded by new nationwide rules approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It was no longer suggested that farmers avoid applying atrazine near water supplies. It was required.
USGS researchers from Lawrence continued their monitoring program.
The Survey's Pope said the lower numbers cited by Brownback in 1993 may have been due not to the success of any management program but to heavy rainfall that year. He said this year's ongoing higher levels may be due to lower rainfall.
"The cause and effect relationship has been established by them, not us, that the establishment of the pesticide management area resulted in a lower concentration," Pope said.
Meanwhile, as the political water debate rages, the USGS has planned for one more growing season of data collection before drawing any conclusions about increases or decreases in atrazine runoff in northeast Kansas.