From Boom to Bust, Writer Explores Water in Kansas

By Tom Parker

To the average Kansas resident living in a metropolitan area, water is a given. Turn on the tap and water flows out. The water is clear, free of impurities and, apparently, infinite in supply.

It’s more complicated in rural Kansas. Turn on the tap and water flows out, but it isn’t always clear and it isn’t always pure and it certainly isn’t infinite in supply. In fact, as writer Sarah Green discovered when she toured the state while researching a series of articles on water in Kansas, water supplies in parts of Kansas are estimated to be sufficient to last several hundred years or as little as two decades, depending upon location. Her findings, presented during the Kansas Farmers Union’s annual convention in mid-December, were both sobering and encouraging, and illustrated the variables and complexities of Kansas water and how it’s allocated and used across the state.

“You might know a lot about water where you live and how you use it,” Green said, “but you might not know other Kansans’ experience with water. We all come to the topic from different directions. I wrote nine stories about water in Kansas; I could have written nine thousand.”

Green’s interest in water was triggered several years ago when the Kansas Health Foundation convened a panel on obesity. One recommendation was to get people to drink more water, but subsequent questions of how much should they drink and, more importantly, how to get them to drink it remained unanswered.

When Governor Sam Brownback started the Vision for the Future of Water in Kansas process, the questions became broader to encompass the realities of water distribution around the state, she said. In summary, the question most asked was, if we want people to drink water, what happens if it’s not there, or it’s not safe to drink? Finding an answer to that question became a passion for Green. The resulting nine articles explored in depth how communities such as Courtland, Hiawatha, Pretty Prairie and others are faring with either an abundance of water, contaminated water or a shortage of water.

Water is critical for agriculture and for the economy, she said. Eighty-five percent of available water in the state is used for agricultural purposes, and about 10 percent goes toward municipal use. And while 96 percent of public water supplies are safe to drink, another four percent is laced with nitrates or arsenic, uranium or selenium, and some communities such as Pretty Prairie, a town of 650 people in Reno County, are forced to supply bottled water to pregnant women and new mothers due to elevated levels of nitrates in the water supply. Though public water systems are mandated to supply safe and clean drinking water, smaller communities struggle to treat their water for contaminants and chemicals regulated by the federal government, and find it virtually impossible to fund new treatment plants with their price tags of $2 million or more.

Hiawatha is another city trying to deal with high levels of nitrates, a substance used in fertilizers or spread from runoff from animal feeding facilities, and often found in high concentrations in rural areas with large amounts of agricultural land. The city’s water system has been operating under a consent agreement with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment since 2014 due to high nitrate levels, and must test its water every quarter. A new water treatment facility is in the works once funding can be secured, but that takes time, Green said, and in the meanwhile pregnant women, new mothers and young children have to buy bottled water to drink.

“The city’s working on it, the county’s working on it and the feds are working on it, there’s a lot of people working on it, but in the mean time people aren’t drinking water or they’re having to buy it, which is a huge financial impact to them,” she said.

Water treatment facilities are one of the biggest civic challenges facing the state, Green said. “Everyone wants a water treatment plant,” she said. “Everyone wants to say that they have their own water supply. But it’s incredibly expensive, and it takes a lot of work and it takes many years to complete.”

Courtland, a small town of 273 residents in eastern Republic County, is on the opposite end of the water spectrum. Home to the Bostwick Irrigation District, which supplies water from the Republican River to 350 farmers who irrigate their crops in Republic and Jewell counties, Courtland’s economy is the envy of neighboring communities, especially those in the western part of the county and beyond. Grain crops bring in $29 million to the irrigation district, money that circulates through the district’s towns of Courtland, Scandia, Belleville and Mankato. Technology and insurance companies support the local agricultural industry, the town’s median income is rising and the town has a downtown new arts center and a thriving arts scene. “Courtland,” Green wrote, “isn’t representative of every rural community when it comes to water.”

Water is a hot topic in Kansas, and it’s only going to get hotter. No matter where you live, every community has a story about water, Green said. Whether it’s for watering crops in dry western counties or making a pot of coffee, the stories share the one inviolate truth that links them all: water is life, and without it there is no life, no community, no cities, no farms.

During Green’s seven months of research, trips across the state and hundreds of phone calls, she learned much more about water than she set out to learn. What she didn’t find out was quantifiable data stating how much water people were drinking. The general rule of thumb of how much they should be drinking was about 64 ounces each day for adults, depending on activity level and other factors. Otherwise, the research simply wasn’t there.

“The general assumption was that we’re not drinking enough water and should drink more,” Green said. “That’s it.”

A YMCA dietician told her that water is no match for the diet drinks, weight-loss drinks and energy drinks being foisted upon Americans by advertising. “Water isn’t crazy, sexy or jazzy like the other things out there,” the dietician told her.

Maybe so. But try doing without.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent throughout the state to upgrade and enhance water treatment and water storage facilities, Green said. New farming practices are reducing the amount of pollutants seeping into our drinking supplies. People are working together to protect existing water sources and to find solutions for areas with depleting water sources. At the end of the day Kansans can turn a spigot and watch a seemingly endless steam of water pour out. It doesn’t get any crazier, any sexier, any jazzier than that.

Read Sarah Green’s Telling the story of water in Kansas series for the KHI News Service here.

Kansas Farmers Union is the state’s oldest active general farm organization working to protect and enhance the economic interests and quality of life for family farmers and ranchers and rural communities. For more information, visit their Web site at www.kansasfarmersunion.com or call 620-241-6630.

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If you would like more information about convention, please call Mercedes Taylor-Puckett at 785-840-6202 or email Mercedes at kfu.mercedes@gmail.com.

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Photo: “Freelance journalist Sarah Green interviewed more than 50 Kansans during the course seven months for the Kansas Health Institute’s News Service series Telling the Story of Water in Kansas.” Available here.

Photo: “More than 100 KFU members, guests and Midwest Regional Agency agents gathered in Topeka December 10-11 for the 2015 Kansas Farmers Union State Convention.” Available here.

Graphic: 2015 Kansas Farmers Union State Convention logo available here.

Graphic: Kansas Farmers Union logo available here.

Kansas Farmers Union is the state’s oldest active general farm organization working to protect and enhance the economic interests and quality of life for family farmers and ranchers and rural communities. We believe family ownership of farm land is the basis for the world’s most viable system of food and fiber production, and that maintaining this family farm system will preserve our natural and human resources.

2016-11-04T21:46:15+00:00