Topeka — Most water quality standards drafted in recent years by legislators and largely embraced by agricultural groups received the approval Tuesday of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA's decision allows the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to set standards for 2,200 different stream segments based upon whether they are suitable for fishing and swimming, and how often they are used for recreation. KDHE officials have classified about 58 percent of the segments and must finish the work by Oct. 31, 2005, under Kansas law.
The standards approved by the EPA judge water quality on concentrations of the E. coli bacteria, strains of which can cause severe diarrhea and dehydration.
The highest standard, for public swimming areas, permits enough bacteria to cause eight of 1,000 swimmers to develop an illness. So far, the vast majority of designated streams are considered inaccessible to the public and therefore have received a lower-quality standard designation.
The lowest standard, waters that can support wading and fishing but aren't accessible to the public, is enough bacteria to cause illness in 108 of 1,000 swimmers.
The only major provision the EPA rejected would have required the state to study the costs and benefits associated with regulating some low-flowing streams before imposing standards.
EPA officials said their agency's action resolved the outstanding issues about Kansas' water quality standards, dictated by a 2001 Kansas law and modified during this year's legislative session. Environmentalists have waged a nine-year legal battle to force stricter standards in Kansas.
KDHE officials said they had anticipated the EPA's approval of most of the standards. The agency submitted some standards in December and the latest standards, approved by the 2003 Legislature, on Sept. 26.
"We appreciate the EPA's prompt response," said Ron Hammerschmidt, the director of KDHE's environment division. "In the past, the lack of response has created a problem."
Farm groups and most legislators have argued the existing standards are an attempt to impose common-sense regulation so that the state is not regulating dry stream beds. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Derek Schmidt said the EPA's approval of most of the water standards was good news.
"It should put to rest a whole chapter in Kansas water quality politics," said Schmidt, R-Independence. "It makes sure that we're concentrating more on the Kaw River than on some unnamed, dry draw in western Kansas, and that's as it should be."
However, Charles Benjamin, an attorney and lobbyist for the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, said he did have concerns about how the Kansas standards attempted to classify stream segments based on their use and accessibility.
"This is not over. I think the whole battle over water quality standards will continue for some time," Benjamin said. "It's the quality of water that's important, not how deep the water is or how accessible it is."