Topeka Under court order, federal environmental officials Monday upgraded the designated use of more than 1,000 bodies of water in Kansas to be clean enough for humans to swim and fish in them.
"Slowly but surely, we are making progress," said Charles Benjamin, a Lawrence attorney representing the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, who sued the Environmental Protection Agency to force it to take the action.
He described the new EPA rules as a victory for "all the people of Kansas because the vast majority of the people of Kansas want to see the waters of Kansas cleaned up."
The court order and announcement of the rules came after years of political and legal wrangling on complex water quality issues.
The result was that the EPA designated 1,062 bodies of water across the state as "primary contact recreational," which means the waters should be clean enough to fish and swim in. Therefore, industries and municipalities that discharge into these waters may have to improve their treatment processes to remove more bacteria from their waste, officials said.
The Kansas River is designated "primary contact recreational," which means it should be clean enough to fish or swim in, but it often has amounts of bacteria that would make it unsafe for swimmers.
EPA officials were quick to point out that any changes would not be required until permits for dischargers were being renewed.
Before the court order, EPA had not placed designations on the waters; instead it awaited results of state-conducted scientific reviews to determine whether a stream should be held to the fishable-swimmable standard or some lower level.
Benjamin had argued EPA had turned the federal Clean Water Act "on its head."
Waters should be designated first as swimmable and fishable, and if the state wanted to challenge that designation it had to conduct the scientific study to show that that higher standard could not be reached, Benjamin maintained.
On March 31, U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Van Bebber of Kansas City, Kan., agreed.
"The plain language of the Clean Water Act limits the options of the court," he said.
He ordered EPA to take final action by Monday in setting the highest levels of protection for the disputed bodies of water.
But federal and state officials downplayed the significance of the new rules that were signed by outgoing EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman on her last day in office before leaving the Bush administration.
"In the short term, the impact will be negligible," said Pat Miller, an attorney with the regional EPA office.
That is because, Miller said, the state and EPA are conducting scientific reviews of the streams and stream segments that could downgrade many of the bodies of water to a lower water quality designation.
Kansas has completed 523 of these studies. Of those, EPA so far has approved 164 state water-use designations. About 60 were for the fishable-swimmable designation; 60 were for a lower standard; the rest of the stream segments were determined to be nonexistent, officials said.
The list of EPA standards and water designations will be published in the Federal Register later this month on a date that has yet to be determined. When published, the Federal Register notice will be available online at www.epa.gov/waterscience/standards/actions.htm.