The EPA has 30 days to respond to a KDHE proposal concerning 119 polluted bodies of water in northeast Kansas.
A new water quality assessment program for Kansas' lakes, rivers and streams will hold farmers and ranchers accountable for runoff from their land -- a major victory for water rights advocates made possible by a lawsuit, an environmental attorney says.
Known as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs), the standards set maximum allowable levels of pollutants in bodies of water from both point sources (generally, permitted discharges from sewage treatment plants) and nonpoint sources, such as runoff from feedlots and farm fields.
"This should have been done 25 years ago," said Charles Benjamin, Lawrence, an attorney and legislative coordinator for the Kansas Natural Resource Council and the state's Sierra Club chapter.
Environmental groups across the country have attacked states for not establishing the standards sooner, as mandated by the 1972 Clean Water Act, which specifies all bodies of water must be clean enough to fish or swim in.
In Kansas, the Sierra Club and Kansas Natural Resource Council filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency in 1995. A federal judge handed down a consent decree in April 1998 requiring the state to establish the TMDL process.
Almost three dozen other states are facing similar litigation as environmental groups tire of the EPA's reluctance to initiate the plans.
On Wednesday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment sent guidelines for the Kansas-Lower Republican River Basin to the Environmental Protection Agency. The river basin covers most of Douglas County and 21 other northeast Kansas counties, and includes the Kansas and Wakarusa rivers and Clinton and Lone Star lakes.
Throughout the next four years, the KDHE will submit similar plans covering the remaining 11 river basins throughout the state.
The new process doesn't set guidelines for punishing landowners if unacceptable amounts of pollution are traced to their properties, said Tom Stiles, chief of planning and prevention for the KDHE. That could change, however, if the standards -- set into law by the judge's decree -- are ignored.
"The key to getting it implemented is farmer participation," Stiles said. "It will not be an overnight thing, but I think in the next five years, you'll see some movement to improve the situation, and five years beyond that, you'll see some definite improvements.
"Everyone has the ability to control their own destinies early on, but if they don't comply, we're allowed to step in and force more participation down the road."
Mike Beam, executive secretary of the Kansas Livestock Assn.'s cow-calf/stocker division, said his group will be working with members to ensure compliance.
"We basically have said the plan the KDHE submitted appears to be doable," Beam said. "We feel like it's our responsibility to help with the education process for producers, and we'll be doing that."
Benjamin said another battle for Clean Water Act defenders could arise if special-interest groups try to execute an end-run around the TMDLs by lowering water quality standards. Two years ago, agribusiness interests successfully lobbied the Legislature to postpone stricter standards for ammonia and chloride, and lowered Atrazine standards. Other states also are contending with lawsuits that challenge the TMDL standards for agriculture runoff.
"It's a constant battle against the people who want to use America's waterways to dilute their pollution," Benjamin said.
The EPA has 30 days to review and respond to the submitted standards.
"From my perspective, the environmental groups did us a favor. They've got us on a schedule and we've come up with a focus and plans for the future," Stiles said.
-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is email@example.com.