Archive for Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Short notice of city’s release of nitrogen-contaminated water raises concerns downstream

The former Farmland site is seen in this aerial photograph on Monday, July 1, 2013.

The former Farmland site is seen in this aerial photograph on Monday, July 1, 2013.

November 15, 2017


Officials with a water district downstream from Lawrence are not happy with the notice they received about the city’s release of nitrogen-contaminated water into the Kansas River.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has authorized the city to release up to 30 million gallons of nitrogen-contaminated water over the next several months as part of a makeshift plan to clean up the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant in eastern Lawrence. That authorization was given a few weeks ago, but Mandy Cawby, a spokeswoman for independent public water district WaterOne, said neither KDHE nor the city notified WaterOne at that time.

Cawby said WaterOne initially learned about the KDHE authorization from an article published Friday morning in the Journal-World. She said she received an email from the city late Friday, but that she doesn’t think there was a concerted effort to bring the district into the loop.

“Since Monday morning, we have contacted KDHE and Lawrence,” Cawby said. “We initiated those contacts to try to understand and get more information about what it is they intend to do and to express our concerns about the lack of advance communication.”

WaterOne is a public water utility that serves 425,000 people, or about 15 percent of Kansans, Cawby said. That includes part of Miami County and most of Johnson County, including the cities of Overland Park, Shawnee and Lenexa.

The city removes the contaminated water from the groundwater stores under the former fertilizer plant. The city is authorized to release up to 500,000 gallons of nitrogen water per day and must adhere to certain concentrations and river flow requirements. Nitrogen can be harmful, but KDHE officials previously told the Journal-World they don’t expect any impact because the nitrogen will be heavily diluted. The authorization is temporary, lasting until April 1, and the city must regularly monitor water conditions.

Tom Stiles, assistant director of the KDHE Bureau of Water, said there isn’t necessarily a protocol for when downstream water districts are notified. He said they did not notify WaterOne or other districts because the conditions placed on the release made it a “nonissue” as far as the impact on water quality.

“When we ran through it, we didn’t think this was a cause for concern,” Stiles said. “There’d be no impact on the river, so it hadn’t risen to a level of us saying we better alert everybody that this is happening.”

Regarding WaterOne’s concern about the level of communication, City Manager Tom Markus said the city can always do better.

“I suppose we’d all like to have the earliest possible communication,” Markus said.

Cawby has another concern. She said that during two phone calls Monday with city staff, she asked the city to consider delaying the discharge a week to give WaterOne time to look over the information about the release. She said she is concerned that no modeling was done and that WaterOne wants to ensure monitoring is frequent enough to account for temporary spikes.

“They did not seem receptive,” Cawby said. “And because they began discharging (Tuesday) within 18 hours of that conversation, I think that’s an accurate assessment of how they responded to our request.”

The authorization to release the water into the river came about because the city’s storage tanks on the Farmland site are at capacity and ongoing efforts to distribute the water by pipeline to farms, where it can be applied as fertilizer, have not been sufficient. Before the KDHE authorization, the city’s plan was to truck the water to additional farmers.

Utilities Director Dave Wagner said the city did a limited run of the nitrogen water release on Friday for a couple of hours. He said more nitrogen water was released Tuesday, and he anticipated daily releases during the temporary authorization period. Regarding WaterOne’s request for a delay, Wagner said the city provided data indicating the releases would have a very minimal impact due to the KDHE conditions and explained the storage issues.

“I think from our perspective, we advised that time is of the essence for us to work the operation out,” Wagner said. “We actually just started up (Tuesday) afternoon and are working on it a little bit today as well. We are not pausing at this point in time.”

Brandon McGuire, assistant to the city manager, also said the release should be put into context. He said wastewater treatment plants also contribute to nutrient pollution, and noted that the city’s new plant, scheduled to open next year, will have processes to reduce the release of nutrients such as nitrogen.

“(The release) is not something that we’re happy to have to do, but we are making many other efforts on an ongoing basis to try to mitigate our overall nutrient discharge,” McGuire said.

Cawby said WaterOne received the requested documents about the KDHE authorization and operational plan late Tuesday. She said they have not determined yet whether any actions, such as increased monitoring of nitrogen levels or switching the district’s water source from the Kansas River to the Missouri River, will be needed.

The city took ownership of the former fertilizer plant in 2010 with the plan of using part of the 467-acre site for a new business park, VenturePark. The city paid nothing for the property, but accepted responsibility for cleaning up environmental issues left behind by the bankrupt fertilizer plant. The city received an $8.6 million trust fund that Farmland had set aside for cleanup.


Ken Lassman 6 months ago

They have permission to discharge the water whenever the Kaw is more than 1000 cubic feet per second (cfs) any time between now and April Fools Day next year. This is also the time of year when the river is at its lowest flow rates of the year. I just checked and it is currently at 1250 cfs. If you want to monitor it yourself, go to the USGS website here:

and click on the little round circle where Lawrence is located on their Kansas map. Make sure that the little box that pops up is titled: 06891080 KANSAS R AT LAWRENCE, KS. It will show you real time flow rates at the Bowersock dam and whenever it drops below 1000 cfs, maybe someone should be checking to make sure that the release is stopped, no?

Ken Lassman 6 months ago

Here's a table version of the water flow data from Bowersock dam as well:

It appears that the water flow dipped briefly twice below 1000 cu feet between Nov. 7 and Nov. 10.

Mark Jakubauskas 6 months ago

To put these discharges in perspective - 1000 cfs (cubic feet per second) converts to 646 million gallons per day. The article states that 500,000 gallons (0.5 million gallons) of nitrogen-contaminated water per day will be released into the river - or 0.08 % of the river flow. So there's a lot of dilution going on here. Proportionately, about a shot glass of nitrogen water poured in a 10-gallon aquarium.

Bob Summers 6 months ago

To put this in perspective, the mighty Kaw is one of the most polluted rivers in the nation.

The nitrogen may actually neutralize some of the plethora of other chemicals leeched into the stream.

Bill Turner 6 months ago

"...the mighty Kaw is one of the most polluted rivers in the nation." According to whom? Got a reference from a reliable source or just spreading gossip? And nitrogen in the form of nitrates don't "neutralize" anything.

Joe Blackford II 6 months ago

A little N in the Kaw is nothing to worry about . . . . the fact that the NBAF's rainwater runoff ponds' overflow will be pumped up Denison to Marlatt & East into the Big Blue River just upstream from its junction with the Kaw . . . .

And yes, it was only 9 years ago:

Several of the buildings on campus were heavily damaged by an EF4 tornado on June 11, 2008. Surprisingly enough, IT EVEN RAINED DURING THE STORM. DHS has guesstimated there's no chance of a twister popping the NBAF's seals & releasing, well, you don't want to know what . . .

Mark Jakubauskas 6 months ago

Yeah, I wouldn't suggest eating fish from the Kaw at any time:

Kansas recommends not eating specified fish or aquatic life from the following locations: The Kansas River from Lawrence (below Bowersock Dam) downstream to Eudora at the confluence of the Wakarusa River (Douglas and Leavenworth counties); bottom-feeding fish because of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Ken Lassman 6 months ago

It's weird, Mark: google fish advisories and the most recent thing that pops up is your 2015 advisory. But if you put in "fish tissue advisory" the 2017 version ( which looks pretty much the same as the 2015) advisory pops up:

Michael Kort 6 months ago

I believe that WaterOne has two very large intake pipes that run N to S across KCK from the south shore of the Missouri River, thru which they can draw water from above the junction of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers ( normally water doesn't flow uphill...... without a special reason ) to supply WaterOnes' treatment plant .

I assume but don't know for sure that WaterOnes' Missouri River intake and the twin mains that cross KCK are up and running and not down for scheduled winter maintenance or repair .

We are now entering the winter months when water use might be 50% of peak summer usage or less ( hence we have the 4 / 01 / 18 state deadline to be done with the release to the River )

All of that said, we owed downstream users the courtesy and some advanced notice that they might be using more Missouri River Water at their plant ......which is pretty filthy water.......which might require a different set of chemicals and a different plan to treat for taste and odor issues than normal Kansas river water might require in mid winter .

I am reasonably sure that KCK and KCMO get their water from the Missouri River North or above the Junction of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers .

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