Local environmentalists criticize the Kansas Legislature for a bill they say would delay clean-up efforts of state streams and rivers.
Floating down the Delaware River last summer, Terry Shistar's canoe reached the Kansas River east of Lecompton.
It was a beautiful day. The water looked inviting.
On a sandbar, children also on the float trip were splashing around -- which alarmed Shistar.
"I know what's in the water," said Shistar, the pesticide management coordinator of the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club.
In that area, it's a foul soup of ammonia and fecal coliform bacteria, coming downstream in heavy concentrations from Topeka's Oakland wastewater plant, she said.
Pollutants in that section of the river have been found to be much higher than allowable federal and state standards, she said.
Shistar and others pushing for recreational use of the Kansas River are upset about a bill now making its way through the Legislature. The Senate passed the bill Friday and sent it back to the House for consideration.
The bill would allow the Topeka plant -- and many others across the state -- to delay complying with 1994 water quality standards for ammonia and chlorides released into the state's surface water for two years.
The bill is intended to raise the allowable standard for atrazine, a herbicide used by corn and sorghum growers, from one part per billion to three parts per billion.
Lawrence residents have a direct stake in the legislation, says Charles Benjamin, a Lawrence resident who is the chief lobbyist for the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Kansas Natural Resources Council.
"There are a lot of folks who live in the Lawrence area who like to use the Kansas River for canoeing and fishing," Benjamin said. "There's going to be more atrazine in the water that Lawrence is going to have to deal with that they are drinking, bathing in and cooking in."
River safety an issue
"Hundreds of people canoe every year between Topeka and Lawrence," said Eileen Larson, one of the co-founders of Friends of the Kaw.
"We're working toward trying to designate recreational stretches of the Kansas River," said Larson, who lives north of Lawrence.
Currently, Lecompton city officials and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks are working on a plan for a canoe inlet at Lecompton expected to be a tourist draw.
But Larson is worried about the health safety issues of swimming or falling in the river.
"If you don't have open wounds and you don't gulp mouthfuls of water, you're probably going to be safe," she said. "I'm always concerned when you see children playing in it. We need to have safer water."
Larson, like other area environmentalists, said the bill delaying the 1994 water quality standards for two years is "a step backward."
"By not recognizing pollution, it doesn't mean pollution is not there," she said. "If we don't recognize these problems, we're not going to be able to start solving them."
One of the key proponents of the bill is Chris McKenzie, a Lawrence resident who is executive director of the League of Kansas Municipalities.
McKenzie said the league is "largely pleased" with a compromise bill.
Under the bill, the state would suspend imposition of the 1994 standards for ammonia and chloride for two years while a seven-member state commission reviews the scientific data used to develop those standards and makes recommendations on whether they should be changed.
Several municipalities joined in support of the legislation, including Topeka, Fort Scott and Johnson County. Some contend they would have to double or triple their utility rates to upgrade their treatment plants to meet the standards.
"The bottom line is, we're trying to make sure that we can justify to the rate payer that every dollar that is spent can be justified to protect the environment," McKenzie said. "If we waste public funds and we're not sure about the outcome, then it's hard to explain to the taxpayer."
Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, the architect of the compromise bill, said environmentalists concerned about the legislation "are not reading the bill."
"This bill does no harm and will actually benefit the environment and taxpayers' pockets," Sloan said.
Sloan worked with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the governor and with state senators on the compromise.
"The key part to this substitute bill is there are going to be seven professional scientists commissioned to look at how the clean water standards apply to ammonia, chlorides and atrazine," he said.
The bill also requires cities to continue to operate at 1987 or more recent standards for ammonia and chlorides that are required under their current state permit.
The bill also deals with the amount of allowable atrazine in the water. The current KDHE standard is one part per billion.
However, KDHE, the Kansas Department of Agriculture and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks have all indicated it would be impossible to attain that low of a level, Sloan said.
"So in the substitute bill, we require the state enforce three parts per billion, which is the safe drinking water standard set by the EPA," he said.
He said three parts per billion of atrazine is equivalent to a teaspoon of atrazine in a railroad tank car filled with water.
Lawmakers have been given a lot of bad information by the cities they haven't questioned, Shistar said.
"You could say they've been duped," she said.
"What has driven these things is they go to the Legislature with a sob story about how much this is going to cost. They've inflated these costs tremendously."
McKenzie said the costs given to legislators were the best available figures.
However, he did say that cities gave him contractors' estimates, which often did not separate the total cost of updating the wastewater plants from the amount it would cost to update them merely to meet ammonia and chloride standards.
One example is Lawrence. McKenzie told lawmakers that Lawrence would have to spend $10 million to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant to meet the 1994 standards.
Roger Coffey, Lawrence's director of utilities, said the city is now in compliance until its permit runs out in 1998.
Coffey said a capital improvement project to comply with new regulatory standards would cost $10 million. However, not all of that is for ensuring the city meet ammonia standards.
The Sierra Club's Benjamin said most cities in Kansas have met the requirements, but a handful have not.
"Prominent among them is the Johnson County Mission Creek facility, the Topeka Oakland facility and the Fort Scott wastewater treatment facility," he said.
"We can show their figures are inflated and they hide much larger problems that have to do with them being older facilities," he said.
KDHE has estimated that it would cost $5.92 million for Topeka's Oakland plant to meet the standards, he said. However, Topeka has said it would cost $20 million to update the plant.
Benjamin said the cities have banded together "to do an end run" to avoid fixing their wastewater treatment plants.
"They feel the Legislature is receptive to this anti-regulatory, anti-environmental, anti-mandate message," Benjamin said. "To us, there's a kind of shell game going on here as to what the true costs are."
Aquatic life 'stressed'
Shistar said one of the problems with the water quality bill is that legislators aren't scientists.
Shistar, whose specialty is atrazine, said the reason KDHE had set the one part per billion atrazine level was to ensure that plants living in the river wouldn't die from the herbicide.
If the plants die, other aquatic life that depend on them also die, she said.
Shistar said recent research has shown that the EPA's standard for safe drinking water of three parts per billion may be too high.
A 1995 study on hamsters showed there was chromosome damage when hamsters were exposed to 1 part per billion for 48 hours.
"One of the reasons I'm upset about raising atrazine levels is that there will be more atrazine in the water and it will be there at levels that are now being found to cause adverse effects," she said.
Agribusiness interests that backed increasing the allowable atrazine in stream and river waters have said they can't comply with the standards unless there is a complete ban.
However, Shistar said there are other methods that could be used, such as regulating its use on sloped areas.
"All these things are putting stress on these things that are living in the water. And it may be that in the next two years you have the stresses that finally do some things in," she said.
"Basically, I think people want to have the water cleaner," she said. "They're sick of hearing that Kansas has the dirtiest water in the country."