Like many Kansas communities Lawrence draws much of its public water supply from a river that flows through the city. Local residents also use Clinton Lake as a source of drinking water as well as a recreation destination. We don't think too much about water because it's always there when we turn on the tap, the dishwasher or the garden hose.
But Kansans are fouling their own nest. According to a report from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, most Kansas rivers and streams are too polluted for such activities as swimming, fishing and boating. More disturbing, but not surprising considering the river data, is that none of the state's 371 publicly owned lakes is considered pristine.
The most immediate impact of this news is on people who like to boat and fish, but the long-range impact goes much further. Some Kansans draw water for their homes from wells, but most municipal water systems draw on rivers, lakes and reservoirs. Those sources of drinking water may not be dangerous now, but it certainly is time to be concerned about the quality of our municipal water systems in the next decade or more.
The primary culprit, according to the state is fecal coliform bacteria. That's what is found in raw sewage. Municipal systems, of course, treat sewage before dumping it in rivers, but how much treated waste can rivers handle? Sewage treatment plants, aging sewer lines, septic tanks and wildlife all contribute to the problem, but agriculture takes much of the blame.
Livestock operations generate runoff, and fertilizers applied to fields wash into waterways where they encourage the growth of algae and other organisms. Herbicides used to control weeds in farm fields can kill plant life that fish need to survive.
The Kansas River, which runs through Lawrence, is a prime illustration of the problem. The city's founders chose this spot on the banks of the Kaw because they knew how important the river would be to the city's future. But now that river is in danger.
It is, perhaps, too simple to look at river pollution as purely an agricultural problem. Preserving water that is suitable for consumption and recreation really is the concern of everyone who lives in Kansas. And it will require the cooperation and attention of both city and rural residents.
The first step may be to remind ourselves of how vital clean, drinkable water is to our very survival. That thought may help both residents and government officials get their environmental priorities straight.