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Archive for Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Analysis: River usage, water quality still touchy Kansas issues

Politicians, officials juggle competing interests

July 8, 2003

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Farmers, cities, manufacturers and suburbanites saw two announcements last week affecting their farms, drinking water supplies, businesses and lawns.

One dealt with how much water will flow through the Republican River, down to Milford Lake, and possibly into the Kansas River. The second dealt with whether hundreds of streams and lakes must be clean enough for swimming and fishing.

Both were reminders that whatever the vagaries of the Legislature's annual sessions and the biennial political cycle, water remains a huge issue for Kansans, whether they live in the semiarid High Plains of the west or the wetter and greener east.

"It's huge," said Martin Kessler, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency in Kansas City, Kan. "It's something they deal with every day."

Farmers have long worried they'll be forced to cut down on water use or be required to take costly measures to keep streams, rivers and lakes clean.

Kansas politicians must respect their views, for the obvious reason: The state has too many farmers, ranchers, equipment dealers, seed sellers and grain-elevator employees to ignore. Also, anything that affects production costs or crop yields ripples through the economy.

That helps explain the long legal battle over water-quality standards in Kansas. On Tuesday, an EPA announcement represented another episode.

The EPA said 1,062 streams and lakes would be classified as suitable for fishing and swimming while the state Department of Health and Environment examined them to see whether that classification should stand.

The EPA and the state had agreed in 2001 to the opposite policy -- allowing the state to classify its streams and lakes as not suitable for fishing and swimming until evidence overruled that presumption.

Warm temperatures and sunny skies bring fishing enthusiasts to the
Kansas River dam every year. Recent decisions on water flow through
the Republican River, which could affect the Kansas River, were
among recent statewide water controversies.

Warm temperatures and sunny skies bring fishing enthusiasts to the Kansas River dam every year. Recent decisions on water flow through the Republican River, which could affect the Kansas River, were among recent statewide water controversies.

Regulation is more stringent for a lake or stream suitable for fishing and swimming. Kansas law allows one-tenth the bacteria allowed in a lake or stream not suitable for fishing and swimming -- 2,000 colonies per liter, instead of 20,000.

The EPA ruled under pressure generated by the Sierra Club and the Kansas Natural Resource Council, which have used federal lawsuits to push Kansas toward more stringent standards.

In 1994, the state submitted revised water quality standards to the EPA, which did not rule on them until 1998, citing deficiencies. A year later, the two environmental groups sued the EPA in federal court to force it to impose new standards.

A year later, the federal agency and the environmental groups agreed the EPA would propose new standards. But those standards touched off loud protests among agriculture groups.

In 2001, the EPA agreed Kansas could designate rivers and streams as not suitable for fishing and swimming until the state reviewed each one. The two environmental groups sued again, and a federal judge ruled in their favor in March.

Meanwhile, as the parties battled over water quality, Kansas fought its neighbors over water quantity.

The fight also was driven by farmers and agriculture groups, upset over what they saw as depletion of the Arkansas and Republican rivers. Both rivers are subject to 1940s compacts between several states about water rights.

More in the river

Kansas sued Colorado in 1984 and prevailed in its arguments that Colorado was letting too little water flow into Kansas. But the states still are before the U.S. Supreme Court, trying to determine how much money Colorado owes Kansas.

Last week, Kansas officials announced the end of the lawsuit against Nebraska over the Republican. The dispute pulled in Colorado as well.

Kansas alleged that Nebraska allowed too much groundwater pumping, depleting the Republican in dry years, costing Kansas enough water to cover 40,000 acres a foot deep.

Last week, Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado agreed on a computer model to use in regulating water use on the Republican.

But the rivers do not represent the only quantity issue. In recent years, the state has been keeping an eye on aquifers, particularly the Ogallala, the major source of water for the state's western third.

"It's an ongoing issue," said David Pope, chief engineer for the Division of Water Resources. "It's been around long-term."

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