Archive for Friday, May 17, 2002

Officials, critics debate water’s safety during annual Wichita River Festival

May 17, 2002


— The state's biggest city is in the middle of its biggest yearly celebration, the Wichita River Festival.

City officials and the Sierra Club disagree, though, about the safety of the water in the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers.

The city acknowledges that during most of the River Festival, bacterial levels in the water have been higher than allowed by state and federal governments.

But city officials also say the water is safe to use, as long as certain precautions are taken such as not swallowing any river water, and washing hands before eating after touching river water.

"Don't be afraid of the water, but at the same time practice good sanitation," said Jack Brown, director of the Wichita Department of Environmental Health.

But the Sierra Club and environmental consultant Ben Huie, who did their own sampling of the rivers, are advising people to keep out of the water.

"There are serious problems exposing people to river water if you have these kinds of levels," said Charles Benjamin, a lawyer for the Sierra Club.

The tests done by the Sierra Club, taken last week after a heavy rain when bacteria levels were expected to be high, showed that the Little Arkansas had 90 times more bacteria than the level considered acceptable.

The Arkansas was about 10 times the level deemed acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency for canoeing, water skiing and swimming.

The city plans to tell people to stay off the water only during a catastrophic event, such as sewage treatment upset or a chemical spill in the river.

Otherwise, officials said, people should make their own decisions about exposure to the water.

For example, for competitors in Saturday's bathtub race, there is little chance of getting wet, little chance of swallowing water and little chance of getting sick, Brown said.

Water skiers, people who got wet during last weekend's raft race or people who are in canoes that tip over would have a greater chance of getting sick.

The EPA has never set a standard in which all contact with the water should be halted. It leaves those decisions up to state and local governments.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment generally recommends that people avoid rivers and streams after a heavy rain because bacteria levels are likely to be high.

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