Advocates for clean water in the Kansas River have decided they may take their issue to court.
Friends of the Kaw — Kaw is the nickname of the 173-mile long Kansas River — has notified the federal Environmental Protection Agency that it plans to sue.
The organization alleges that EPA has failed to impose sufficient water quality standards in the Kaw.
“Unfortunately, these days it takes a lawsuit to get things done,” said Laura Calwell, Kansas riverkeeper for Friends of the Kaw.
“Our ultimate goal is to clean up the Kaw,” Calwell said, noting that the river is a major drinking source for northeast Kansas and that, under the federal Clean Water Act, rivers and streams should be fishable and swimmable.
“The Kaw isn’t swimmable,” she said.
Specifically, Friends of the Kaw’s concern is pollution from excessive quantities of nutrients, including phosphorous and nitrogen. Most commonly, this comes from sewage and runoff from agriculture.
This results in algal blooms that deprive oxygen, leading to fish kills and eventually “dead zones” where aquatic life cannot survive.
One of the biggest dead zones in the world is in the Gulf of Mexico, which the Kansas River eventually flows into.
One of the major disputes is how to quantify pollution. Friends of the Kaw says numeric criteria — setting specific concentration levels of allowable nitrogen and phosphorous and measuring those — is preferable. But most states, including Kansas, have imposed what is called narrative criteria. This is where bodies of water are classified as to what they should be able to maintain and what they shouldn’t have.
Attorneys for Friends of the Kaw told EPA in a letter, “EPA determined 12 years ago, in June 1998, that numeric water quality criteria for nutrients were necessary to meet the requirements of the Act. Kansas, however, still has not imposed such numeric criteria. The time for ‘prompt’ response has long since passed in Kansas ….”
The letter represents formal notice of the intent to sue and starts a 60-day time period for possible negotiations, which will expire in early August.
Chris Whitley, a spokesman for the regional EPA office, said the notice has been forwarded to EPA’s legal office in Washington, D.C. Because the matter could lead to litigation, Whitley said EPA would have no comment.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which oversees enforcement of pollution rules in the state, also declined to comment on the possible litigation.
But it did defend the use of narrative criteria as opposed to numeric criteria.
“Establishing an accurate cause and effect criteria based on nutrient concentration is problematic and highly variable depending on the specific stream or lake. However, through narrative criteria, problem waters can be identified and control measures targeted and implemented,” KDHE said in response to questions from the Journal-World.
“In short, when people recognize there is a problem, they support efforts to improve the water quality,” KDHE said.