New and bigger wetlands might be in the making.
Construction of about 400 acres of new, man-made wetlands just south of Lawrence is being considered by state highway official.
Their idea is to get the troubled bypass, originally envisioned as hooking Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence and Interstate 70 northwest of Lawrence, back on track.
The idea is to mitigate damage done to the Baker Wetlands by completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway, a road project mired for years in controversy. State transportation officials have hired at least two consultants and expect to pay as much as $100,000 for their study.
Neither SLT opponents nor bypass supporters are sure what to make of the conceptual plan, but they are willing to talk about it with Mike Rees, chief counsel for the Kansas Department of Transportation. Rees has been trying to jump-start the project for months.
"Do you trade existing wetlands you know are functioning and are used by many people in the community for a project that may or may not happen?" asked Bob Eye, an attorney for the Wetlands Preservation Organization, a group of students, alumni and faculty at Haskell Indian Nations University.
The Baker Wetlands contains 573 acres, but the new plan could expand wetlands to the west and east of its present location, creating a buffer zone on both sides.
The 400-acre area being considered to the west is between Iowa and Louisiana streets and bordered by 31st Street and the Wakarusa River. The area was wetlands for many years before being drained for agriculture. Creating wetlands east of Haskell Avenue, and east of the existing wetlands, also is being considered.
Eye said he and his clients would like to take a closer look at the proposed project before taking sides.
"I think that's something we want to be very careful about following," he said. "I think we're still very dubious about building a highway through the wetlands."
While a study is being done to see if the idea is even possible, Rees said he hoped to talk to representatives at Haskell, Kansas University, Baker University and area school districts. He recently sent a letter to those entities requesting their participation. Rees said the schools also will be interested in a nature research facility that would be built in conjunction with the new wetlands.
"I really would like to hear from the people that would use it," he said. "I think it would be a big draw for the school districts."
In 1999, KDOT offered a $5 million mitigation proposal to Haskell. That proposal included the possibility of a research facility. This time, Rees said he is looking at the bigger picture.
"I don't really want to go back to Haskell with another proposal if I think they're going to turn us down again," he said. "It's more than Haskell involved, it's the whole community."
The $5 million is still available, Rees said.
The consultants, Ted Cable, a professor and park designer at Kansas State University, and Virgil Brack at Environmental Solutions and Innovations of Cincinnati, are studying types of vegetation and conducting soil analyses. Their work should be done by early summer.
Placement of the new wetlands could be on either side of the Baker Wetlands, Rees said, and could play a role in what alignment is proposed for the unfinished eastern leg of the trafficway. He said the trafficway could follow 31st, 32nd, 35th or even 38th street, to connect to Kansas Highway 10.
The Federal Highway Administration issued a statement last month saying it completed its involvement with the trafficway and would not be involved again unless federal highway funds are spent.
"From a legal point of view, we could take this as a state project and buy the right-of-way, but we really would like to work something out with Haskell," Rees said. "From the state's point of view, this highway is badly needed. It's an embarrassment."
But how KDOT would get a road through the existing wetlands is a question that has not been answered.
John Fuller, a spokesman for Baker University, said the university still contends that an alignment along 31st Street would be least damaging to the wetlands, but Baker wants to be included in the discussions.
"It makes a major difference to us where that road would go through the wetlands," he said. "It always has. 31st Street or 32nd Street makes a huge difference."
Rees said KDOT hadn't selected an alignment, but would continue to pursue ways, such as with the wetlands study, to complete the SLT.
"If we build a trafficway, the need for a 31st Street improvement would be greatly reduced, he said.
Meantime, Lawrence and Douglas County officials have entered into negotiations with a firm that will study ways to improve 31st Street, from Iowa Street to Noria Road, as an arterial road.