On Sunday, while most Lawrence residents were focused on resetting their clocks, another, more important, reset was taking place on the Kansas River without any of the notice given to the end of daylight saving time.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began increasing the flow on the river to fill the “mill pond” created to drive turbines at the new Bowersock Mills power plant in Lawrence. More than 900 million gallons of water ultimately will be released from the river system’s already drought-depleted reservoirs so that “green” energy can be sold to Kansas City, Kan.’s Board of Public Utilities to benefit the Bowersock operation.
The release of water for Bowersock comes at a time when inflows into reservoirs in the Kansas-Lower Republican basin already were lagging outflows. It also comes when all of Kansas is considered to be in at least extreme drought conditions and nearly 40 percent of the state is considered to be in “exceptional” (the most severe category) drought condition.
Bowersock, incidentally, has the oldest water right on the Kansas River, and also the largest: 1 million acre feet of water. Just a single acre foot of water equals 325,851.429 gallons of water. But as Kermit the Frog famously said, “It ain’t easy being green.”
Almost no one would quarrel with the need for green energy, and it understandably comes with a cost. Most people in Lawrence probably take pride in having that new “green” generating facility on the river after long months of construction. But is the cost in water supplies of releasing 900 million gallons of water during drought conditions reasonable? Is it reasonable that 1.5 million people who depend on water supplies are put at some risk during the second or third year of a drought to generate small amounts of electricity that — if truly needed — could be generated easily by coal-fired or nuclear plants?
There is at least anecdotal evidence in the diaries and journals of early travelers and settlers that the Kansas River has run dry on two occasions. It could happen again, and when the storage is gone not only will there be no water to drink, there will be none to produce electricity for Bowersock.
What’s taking place on the Kansas River almost in secret should be a widely discussed and extraordinarily public matter. The governor and the Legislature should be monitoring closely what is taking place; they should be explaining to the public the decisions and actions of the Corps and the Kansas Water Office. If the situation requires changes in the state’s water laws, then the state should be prepared to make them.
It’s also incumbent upon Bowersock representatives to exercise considerable restraint and not put their profits ahead of the public good.
Again, the state’s drought conditions impose new, and highly public, responsibilities on everyone involved.