Kansas River provides drinking water to over 800,000 people and is the largest tributary to the Missouri River. Despite its importance, the river has been threatened by man-made hydrological structures and severe agricultural pollution.
The Kansas River, frequently referred to as the Kaw River, stretches 173 miles from Junction City to Kansas City where it drains into the larger Missouri River. The river’s watershed covers approximately 53,000 square miles in regions of Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska.
The Kansas River is a critical water body to the eastern half of Kansas, making it a rich agricultural and natural wildlife center. The Kansas River provides drinking water to over 800,000 people and is the largest tributary to the Missouri River.
Map of the Kansas River watershed (Friends of the Kaw)
Despite its ecological and economic importance, the Kansas River watershed has been threatened by man-made hydrological structures and severe agricultural pollution.
Nevertheless, a review of the river’s history and current state reveals that an emphasis on a circular economic approach engaging regional governments, businesses, and citizens can ensure a new and cleaner future.
MECCA OF BIODIVERSITY
The Kansas River watershed is home to many distinct habitats.
Close to the river’s end in Kansas City is the Baldwin Forest, a riparian, deciduous forest habitat that is unmatched in the area and is protected by the University of Kansas as a natural preserve.
The Kansas River also boasts supporting the Flint Hills, one of the largest natural, tallgrass prairie environments remaining in the United States.
In addition to these diverse terrain , Kansas is home to a wide variety of fish including, the Cardinal Shiner, the Northern Plains Killifish, and the Shortnose Gar.
Tallgrass prairie at Flint Hills (The Nature Conservancy)
CAUSES OF POLLUTION
A report by the Kansas Riverkeeper found that plastic was the most commonly found littered item on the Kansas River, particularly the disposable plastic water bottles.
Plastic pollution can pose a significant threat to wildlife and humans who rely on river water, as the material can transfer polymers, like Polypropylene, into drinking water while proving deadly to animals to ingest it.
Discarded water bottle in the Kansas River (KSHB)
AGRICULTURAL AND URBAN STORMWATER POLLUTION
One of the biggest sources of pollution from the Kansas river is runoff from farmlands and city streets. Pollution in the river is primarily caused by nonpoint sources, such as pesticides, fertilizers, and animal manure, which get washed into the rivers and streams during rains, storm runoff, and snowmelt.
As the river drains more than 53,000 square miles of commercial farmland, it suffers greatly from fertilizer and animal waste pollution that gets washed into the streams. Industrial agriculture predominantly contributes to a lot of non-point pollution to the Kansas River watershed.
Kansas river and surrounding area (Kansas Water Office)
The use of chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides in the agriculturally vibrant areas of the Kansas River watershed, pollutes the river and poses a threat to aquatic and human life.
For instance, Atrazine, the second most commonly used pesticide on crops like corn and sugarcane, was cited as a top chemical found in the waters near Kansas City.
Algae blooms have grown substantially in the Kansas River’s watershed, as cyanobacterial toxins like microcystin have entered the system. These blooms choke off critical oxygen supplies in the water and create dead zones which make aquatic life untenable.
In the fall of 2011, Milford Lake had a record green-blue algae bloom as the US Geological Service reported that microcystin levels exceeded the recommended levels set by the EPA and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment by an appalling rate of 7500.
Algal bloom on Milford Lake, Kansas (Jennifer Graham, US Geological Service)
Yet agriculture was not solely to blame for the issue at hand. Another frequently cited pollutant in the region is Glyphosate, a common weed killer, used on lawns and marketed as the product “RoundUp” in domestic sales.
- The Friends of the Kaw River, also known as the Kansas Riverkeeper, is one of the most active NGOs involved in the preservation of the Kansas River.
Conducted “The Great River Cleanup” in June 2020, a project funded by the MDRT Foundation, where they removed 3,260 lbs of old discarded battery cases from the Kansas River.
“The Great River Clean Up” organized by FOK (Friends of the Kaw Facebook Page)
- The Kansas Riverkeeper also incorporates citizen science where people can report pollution such as illegal dumping, fish kills, odor, etc. The report can be made through their website or through phone calls.
ADMINISTRATIVE ACTIONS TAKEN
A series of actions have been undertaken by the authorities to stem the impact of pollution of the Kansas River.
- The Army Corps of Engineers has rescinded permits from concrete manufacturers that were found to be jeopardizing the river’s water table.
- Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued a review of future dredging in the river and has recently taken more aggressive action to enforce water quality standards set by the federal Clean Water Act.
- To date, the most comprehensive initiative to address pollution in the Kansas River has been the Kansas Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) which seeks to work with local stakeholders in government, agriculture, and private businesses to craft solutions for the watershed.
CIRCULAR ECONOMY SOLUTIONS
WHAT IS CIRCULAR ECONOMY?
Under a circular economic model, all materials used in the production of goods and services are capable of being reincorporated into the natural environment by recycling or reusing.
A circular economy would reduce the enormous waste inherent within our modern economic system by aiming to reintegrate every material. Many environmental organizations see a circular economy as the best way to bring the world to zero waste.
WHAT CAN CITIZENS DO?
Regulation and limits on pollution are effective up to a point but true change comes from cooperation across a variety of private and public actors including the community surrounding the river.
- Using natural vegetation and gardening techniques: Instead of opting for harmful chemicals and non-native plants, homeowners and local residents can play their part in reducing the harmful impacts from stormwater runoff and the large amount of impervious surfaces that are created in urban environments. Using gravel or sand instead of concrete in driveways will also help.
- A community plastic bank and recycling center should exist in every town along the river to make it reachable for all citizens. Waste collected can then be processed (recycled, upcycled, downcycled) into something useful and thereby create a source of livelihood for someone. Awareness-raising activities on different types of plastics and how to segregate them will also help for a cleaner environment.
- Wetlands for agricultural runoff and flooding at the borders of farm properties are inexpensive. A study by the EPA found that wetlands were effective in reducing the severity of flooding as the deep roots of wetland plants help absorb and filter out harmful pollutants that get incorporated into stormwater runoff.
Flowchart showing the natural filtration of wetlands (Canadian Broadcast Company)
EARTH5R CIRCULAR ECONOMY APPROACH
As one of India’s largest volunteer environmental organizations, Earth5R understands the importance of involving everyday people in achieving sustainability, reducing waste, and stopping the degradation of river habitats.
For instance, Earth5R’s Zero Waste campaign in Powai, India helped show how sustainable practices in material used can reform the harmful practices of local communities into productive ones.
Earth5R public environmental awareness campaign in Pune, India (Earth5R)
Another cleanup initiative concentrated on plastics pollution in Pune, India has also displayed the importance of awareness campaigns, educational initiatives, and cleanup efforts can all be leveraged jointly to address this issue by working with relevant partners.
Reach out to Earth5R to learn more about solving environmental issues by creating a circular economy based sustainability projects.
Earth5R is an environmental organization from India with its head office at Mumbai. It works with the NGO sector, Companies and helps them conduct environmental corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs across India. Earth5R specializes in circular economy based projects. Earth5R also offers short term and long term environmental courses.
Earth5R’s Global Sustainability Hub is a cross-sector and cross-country collaboration in pursuit of UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is an excellent opportunity for governments and the private sector to engage with communities, use Sustainability-based models to drive economic changes and create social and environmental impact.
–Reported by Adam Shaham, edited by Aastha Dewan