Canoeists might do more to help clean up Kansas rivers than any fancy new technology can. If only more Kansans could find a way to get their boats in the water.
The answer is not to get people to put water filters on their paddles. It is getting people to care about their waterways.
The experience of an overnight float on a river can be convincing: Coyotes still singing as you prepare your boat for the adventure. June fog swirling on the water. The magical scratching sound of an aluminum canoe as it slides off a sandbar in the morning cool.
Fish if you like. Find fossils on sandbars. Stop anywhere for lunch. Camp on an island. The entire river is yours, with moving water to take you where you want to go.
Thirty years ago most industrial and municipal pollutants came out of pipes. These easily found and easily blamed sources were the first to be cleaned up. But while industry and cities have acted, we ignore new, diffuse sources of pollution for which we are all responsible.
When everybody is the problem it is hard for anybody to take the blame or make the fix. Few of us want to recognize the effect we all have on our streams, whether from urban sprawl, bare-soil agriculture or a small-scale feedlot. We can't remember, or don't want to remember, when our rivers ran free of the green-brown taint of fertilizer and manure runoff.
Some people argue that Kansas is no worse than surrounding states. But the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reports that 76 percent of Kansas streams examined and all of our lakes are polluted beyond state and federal water-quality standards for recreational use. Is that acceptable?
Watershed specialists have known for years how to solve this problem with little or no long-term cost.
Proper vehicle maintenance saves money in the long run and prevents oil and antifreeze leaks that eventually poison our waterways. Same for septic systems. Properly locating feedlots and providing alternative water for farm animals keep streams free of manure (and animals healthier and thus cheaper to raise). No-till farming, grass buffer strips and other conservation farming practices protect our soils, and keep silt and fertilizer on the fields where they belong instead of running to the Gulf of Mexico.
Rivers are protected when local citizens appreciate them natural and unspoiled. Sadly, the closest experience most Kansans have with their streams is on a bridge at 55 mph with the windows up and the air conditioner on. It is no wonder we don't care enough to keep our rivers clean.
The story is different in other states. They know that a minimal investment can draw millions of tourist dollars, create a higher quality of life and raise everyone's concern for water quality. Missouri has hundreds of well-designed boat ramps and canoe access points funded by state and local government. By design, it is easy for people to get on and off Missouri's rivers for a one-day or weekend float trip.
In contrast, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks lists only 25 boat ramps for river access in our state. And most of these are at the backwaters of reservoirs. There are few streams available for a float from one access to another on moving water. It's no wonder most Kansas canoeists paddle elsewhere.
Everybody wants clean water. Let's build public access and let Kansans learn to love their waterways.