The Kaw River could offer more recreation, but local groups say pollution and access to the river stand in the way.
Public interest in greater recreational access to the Kansas River is growing, but concerns remain about whether the water is clean enough to support such activities.
Last weekend, a canoe trip from Lake Perry to Lawrence attracted more than 350 participants, according to Friends of the Kaw, a group working to bring public attention to the river.
And upstream in Topeka, where there is only one legal access point on the river, city officials and neighborhood groups are beginning to look at the Kaw as an untapped recreation and tourism resource.
The city of Topeka recently agreed to team up with downtown businesses to develop a new "Millennium Park" with a pedestrian and bicycle trail along the south bank levee. On the north shore, a neighborhood group wants the city to develop riverfront parks with boat and fishing access as part of a larger redevelopment effort for the city's old rail yard district.
But while the idea of a river filled with boats, canoes, fishers and swimmers conjures appealing images, some river enthusiasts are concerned their efforts may be for naught because of pollution problems on the Kaw.
"I think we've lost a great freedom here by not being able to swim in our state's main river," said Lance Burr of Friends of the Kaw.
The organization began about 1994 as an effort to oppose new sand dredging operations on the Kaw. Burr said the annual canoe trips were intended to show that recreational interest in the river was at least as important as commercial and industrial interests.
The popularity of the event has grown each year. This year, for the first time, Friends of the Kaw hired an outfitter who brought 60 boats and canoes from Noel, Mo., that were rented out to participants.
From a physical standpoint, Burr said, the Kaw is naturally inviting to people who want to wade or swim. In normal flow seasons, it is fairly shallow, has a slow current, and has plenty of sandy beaches and islands.
One of the biggest obstacles to recreation on the river, Burr said, is access. Although the river stretches 170 miles from Kansas City to Manhattan -- making it the longest recreational corridor in the state -- there are only a few access points from which to fish or launch a boat.
But it is also a large drainage basin for the bulk of northeast Kansas. Runoff from farm fields and livestock pens washes sediment, chemicals and bacteria into the river, and discharge from sewage treatment plants load the river with additional bacteria and ammonia.
Whether those factors make the river unsafe for swimming, boating or fishing depends on whom you ask.
Don Brown, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said there were no official health advisories for recreational contact with the Kansas River.
"It's not a raw water source you'd want to consume," Brown said. "Certainly the potential exists for bacteria because it's a muddy river. That's the nature of the body of water, but there is nothing that would trigger a contact advisory from us."
Although there may be no official health advisory, KDHE does list major stretches of the Kansas River as "impaired" for two of its designated uses: primary and secondary contact recreation.
That's because routine samples from the river have levels of fecal coliform bacteria and ammonia.
Primary contact includes activities involving total immersion and the chance of ingesting water, such as swimming, water skiing and wind surfing. Secondary contact includes wading, fishing, trapping and hunting -- activities less likely to result in ingesting river water.
Also, said Charles Benjamin, attorney and lobbyist for the Kansas Natural Resource Council and Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, the river tests high at certain times of year for atrazine, an agricultural herbicide used widely on soybean and milo fields in northeast Kansas.
"There is no way you can say the Kansas River is safe to swim in," Benjamin said.
Suit questions standards
Benjamin is one of the attorneys involved in a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for allegedly failing to enforce the Clean Water Act in Kansas.
The suit claims water-quality standards adopted by the state in 1994 were too lax to meet federal requirements, and therefore the EPA was obligated to impose its own standards on Kansas.
Although the state attempted to tighten the rules on ammonia, atrazine and chlorides in 1997, Kansas lawmakers suspended implementation of those rules and created a special commission to review them.
The result was a new set of standards that took effect July 1 -- standards Benjamin said were even less restrictive in some areas than the 1994 standards.
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