Stretching 170 miles from Junction City to its confluence with the Missouri River, the Kansas River could - and should - be one of the Sunflower State's premier recreational and economic resources. It is truly baffling that the Kaw's potential has never been grasped by our citizens, nearly half of whom reside in the Kansas River Valley; not to mention the fact it runs through the capital city where our 165 legislators spend a portion of the year.
At normal flow, most of the Kansas River is shallow enough to walk across. And while the river bed itself is open to the public, the problem lies in finding an access point along the mostly private shoreline to actually get to the water. There are various accesses along the river, but Mike Calwell of Friends of the Kaw lists only three as good, accessible ramps. He identifies one in Topeka and two in Lawrence. Other ramps are in disrepair, too steep for reasonable entry, or located on tributaries that require excessive paddling for canoes and often too little water for the safe passage of any vessel.
Access should not be an obstacle to the recreation opportunities of our public river. We need safe, accessible ramps where families can launch boats and canoes, as well as convenient exit points located a reasonable distance downstream. Today, few of these locations exist.
The Friends of the Kaw and the city of St. George currently are developing a ramp in that town, east of Manhattan. The state Department of Wildlife & Parks is studying two separate sites near Perry and Lecompton for access as well. While these site are certainly a step in the right direction, more are needed.
The overall health of the Kansas River is also a major concern. American Rivers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring America's rivers, annually lists the Kaw as endangered because of pollution. Some observers may disagree with the methodology used to warrant this distinction; however, the fact the Kansas River needs to be cleaned up is indisputable.
Agricultural runoff and poorly designed and out-of-date wastewater treatment plants are blamed for the pollution. Sand dredging operations also are listed as having a significant impact. While these actions play a part in degrading the river ecosystem, the No. 1 threat to the Kaw is apathy from our citizens.
Kansans need to get involved in programs that will benefit the river, working without alienating groups or pointing accusing fingers. State and federal programs are available to producers who establish riparian buffers along stream corridors. Urban residents also can reduce harmful fertilizer runoff by consulting with local agencies for treatment guidelines. All citizens should consider supporting bond issuances or other sources of revenue to support new and improved sewage treatment facilities.
The potential the Kansas River holds has never been realized. The water not only supports our life, it can be the source of countless recreational opportunities - canoeing, boating, fishing, hunting, wildlife watching, camping and more. When we give people greater access and raise awareness to this treasure, the economic impacts will become apparent. We need only to look to the towns around our publicly developed reservoirs to see the importance of these parks and wildlife areas to their local economy.
As Kansans become more urban, demand for public recreation areas will continue to increase. Our state is not blessed with much public land - ranking 49th in the nation - but we do have a 170-mile public resource that deserves our attention and respect.
Let's unlock the gate to the Kansas River.