Topeka State officials are embarking on a study of the Kansas River that is sure to reignite the long-running battle between environmentalists and sand dredging operators.
"The Kansas River is a valuable resource that needs to be managed," said Ken Grotewiel, director of the Kansas Water Office.
On Thursday, the Kansas Water Authority will discuss launching a major review of the river, also known as the Kaw, to find out what factors are contributing to the degradation of its channel, including the role of aggregate dredging.
Two faces of the Kaw
The 170-mile river runs through the most populated part of Kansas, traversing 10 counties that are home to more than a million people, about 40 percent of the state's population.
In some bends, the river looks like a garbage dump. The nonprofit conservation group American Rivers routinely lists the Kaw as an endangered river laced with loads of pesticides and bacteria.
But in other areas, the river's beauty shines through, and many see its potential as a major recreational resource for canoeing and other activities.
Environmentalists are looking forward to the Kaw study.
"I think this is a positive step," said Laura Calwell, the Kansas Riverkeeper for Friends of the Kaw, an organization dedicated to environmental protection.
"The state of Kansas is finally taking a serious look at the degradation on the Kansas River and how to protect the river," she said.
But Edward "Woody" Moses, director of the Kansas Aggregate Producers Assn., said he was puzzled by the proposal before the Kansas Water Authority, a 24-member panel within the Kansas Water Office that advises the governor and Legislature on water resource issues.
He said numerous studies had already been done on the effect of dredging on the river.
"I don't know what new information they're going to find," Moses said. "We don't feel sand dredging is having any negative impact on the river. There's plenty of room for everybody on that river," he said.
|What: Kansas Water Authority considers causes of Kansas River channel degradationWhen: 9 a.m. ThursdayWhere: Ramada Inn, 420 S.E. Sixth Ave., Topeka|
Each year, about 1.8 million tons of sand is taken from the Kansas River, with much of it removed from the river bed through hydraulic dredging operations at several sites.
The high-quality sand is a primary source of aggregate for cement that is used in construction projects in the Kansas City area.
Friends of the Kaw has called for suspending sand dredging on the river and has lobbied the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject the approximately dozen site permits for dredging operations.
Friends of the Kaw and other environmental groups say dredging is ruining the Kansas River by removing the Kaw's natural filtering system and degrading river banks, which in turn destroys the vegetation that can filter agricultural runoff. The sediment dumped back into the water from the dredging hurts fish and their spawning grounds, the groups say.
Current dredging permits expired in 2003 but have been indefinitely extended by the corps of engineers. The agency has asked for the state's position on aggregate dredging before it takes action on renewing those permits, according to the Kansas Water Office.
Meanwhile, other federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have weighed in with letters to the corps that say before the permits are renewed more study is needed to determine the effects of dredging on wildlife.
Though the proposed study before the Kansas Water Authority has a major focus on dredging, it will also look at issues including the effect of dams on the river. When sediment piles up behind dams, the result is the release of relatively clear water with a large material-carrying capacity that "downcuts" the riverbed, according to a Kansas Water Plan concept paper.
The study will also look at streambed degradation of the Missouri River, of which the Kaw is a tributary, and whether that affects the reach of the Kaw in the Kansas City area.
Grotewiel, the head of the Kansas Water Office, said the study was not aimed at placing blame with the sand dredgers, but in getting facts that could be used to help balance the economic, recreational and drinking water uses of the river.
"We're not just picking on people. We want to get away from that," he said.
The study will lead to policy recommendations for state officials to consider by the 2007 legislative session.