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Border Rivalry Swept Aside to Save Water Supply

The Border War you know about. Now’s there the Border Water.

Bolstered by a $900,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, local Missouri and Kansas officials have been working together to clean up the river system that feeds Truman Lake.

“The water doesn’t stop at the border,” said Don Stottlemire, a Franklin County commissioner who is one of those officials.

The four-year project, which covers nearly 3,700 square miles and 17 Kansas and Missouri counties in the Marais des Cygnes River basin, is in its third year, said Leslie Rigney, the project coordinator.

The Marais des Cygnes River meanders through the rocky hills of east central Kansas and west central Missouri, where it is joined by the Little Osage and Marmaton rivers in Missouri and forms the Osage River.

The river and its tributaries feed some of the most significant lakes including Hillsdale, Pomona and Melvern lakes in eastern Kansas and Truman Lake and Lake of the Ozarks in western Missouri.

Although much of the river basin includes crop and pasture land, it’s also where some of the fastest population growth and suburbanization occurs in the Kansas City area. Areas of southwestern Johnson County and Miami and Franklin counties are among the fastest-growing in the state.

Because of the combination of agriculture and urbanization, it poses some unusual pollution problems for the Marais des Cygnes river basin, said Gale Salzman, director of the Hillsdale Water Quality Project, a quasi-government group that tries to cut the amount of pollutants and soil sediments flowing into Hillsdale Lake, immediately southwest of Kansas City.

In EPA lingo, most of the Marais des Cygnes is “impaired.” The EPA has also expressed alarm about the growing level of pollutants and sediment in Truman Lake.

Rain runoff from fields and pasture pumps tons of farm fertilizers, organic matter (that’s the nicey word for cattle poop) and soil. But urban growth causes its own type of pollution, including lawn chemicals and fertilizers, grass and tree trimmings, building detritus and even oil drippings on driveways and roads.

One drop of motor oil can make about seven gallons of water undrinkable, Salzman said.

And “drinkable” is the key word when it comes to the Marais des Cygnes, according to Salzman.

Because of the unique topography of the underground soil in the basin, the river and its necklace of tributaries and lakes provide most of the drinking water for the more than 125,000 people living in the basin and for thousands more in the wider region.

The added load means water district and city water treatment plants have to spend more and use more complicated processes to clean the water.

But the dirt and much that runs off city parking lots or falls off rural stream banks poses an even larger threat, according to Salzman.

As that sediment flows into the lakes, it stops and falls to the bottoms, causing filling of the lakes from the bottom up, a process called “aging.”

Engineers discovered that lakes with expected design-lives of 100 years or more were filling in faster than expected because of the increased sediment and pollutant loads.

“Ten years after it opened, we found out that Hillsdale had aged 25 years,” Salzman said.

That left a Hobson’s choice – find a way to cut the loads getting into the river or dredging the lakes.

“And dredging is expensive – very expensive,” she said.

The Hillsdale Water Quality Project was the response in 1993, she said.

Area residents, local companies, developers, local governments and volunteers teamed up to adopt a variety of ways to cut the amount of farm and city pollutants and dirt that wash into the lake.

The Hillsdale effort has served as a model for other areas that surround lakes in the basin.

The multi-state project adopts many of the same concepts plus a few wrinkles.

Rigney is careful to point out that the project works within the regulatory framework of the localities and that there are no new regulations.

Instead, the grant money is being used as giant carrot to prod property owners to adopt those concerts, she said.

“Actually, a lot of smaller carrots,” she said.

Grant money is offered as “cost-shares,” 50 to 75 percent of the costs of making the changes, she explained.

In the two years of the project, cattlemen have used cost-share money to fence their cattle away from open streams, put in auxiliary watering systems that create less effluent for streams; and many rural residential septic systems have been repaired or replaced, she said. Those programs were popular enough to use up the money set aside relatively quickly, she said. The project is now concentrating on planting more trees along steams and creating an aggressive education program for government officials, farmers, developers and volunteers, she said.

One of the more urgent goals was fixing septic systems. Some national statistics point to rural Missouri as one the top states for failed residential septic systems.

Rigney said her own observations confirmed that the project faced more challenges in Missouri.

Missouri’s regulations on rural septic systems are different from Kansas’s and there appears to have been little attempt to enforce them, she said.

In some cases, “there was raw sewage running on the ground,” she said.

Especially in those Kansas counties that are seeing strong population growth. southwest of Kansas City, the septic regulations are more strict and are more rigorously enforced, Stottlemire said.

Stottlemire, chairman of Lake Region Resource Conservation and Development Council, Ottawa, Kan., was one of the first officials involved in pursuing the grant.

Early on, they decided to include those Missouri counties in the basin, he said.

The decision to include Missouri made the proposal more appealing to federal officials, according to Rod Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which funnels the grant money from the EPA to Lake Region, which contracts with the Hillsdale Water Quality Project to coordinate the bi-state project.

“The Marais des Cygnes Basin Targeted Watershed Grant provides the opportunity for stakeholders from both sides of the state line to come together to address water quality issues affecting this bi-state river basin,” Bremby said.

The collaboration “provides a framework to go beyond administrative boundaries and address water quality issues on a watershed basis,” he said.

The EPA has heralded the project.

The project is the only one of its kind in the nation, Stottlemire said.

And despite the complicated framework and dealing with different regulations and practices from state to state and locality to locality, it’s gone smoothly and it’s made an impact on the river, he said.

“The hardest part was sitting down in the same room at the same table with all these people, the EPA, the KDHE, and the folks from Missouri,” he said.

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