A United Front for Healthy Waterways

Rendering of a proposed rain garden in the public right-or-way with pervious street side parking. courtesy the Kansas City, Missouri Water Services Department.

Assessing the issues

It starts here. We’re in the middle of a parking lot, like a thousand others in the Kansas City Metro Area, and millions more across the country. Like most lots, this one is dotted with bits of trash: an empty plastic cup, wadded up paper, stains from a long-gone car’s oil leak. Sooner or later, it will rain.

Don Wilkinson, a hydrologist with the US Geological Survey said that at this particular suburban plaza, south of downtown Kansas City, Mo., rain will flow in sheets off the parking lot, taking the aforementioned debris with it. It will wash into storm sewers around the lot’s perimeter and drain, less than 100 feet of concrete pipe later, into Indian Creek.

The creek, a tributary of the Blue River, flows through Johnson County, Kansas and Jackson County, Missouri before connecting to the Missouri River near the border between Kansas City and Independence, Mo. In all, the Blue River Watershed covers approximately 289 square miles.  It is one of many waterways Wilkinson monitors, and he knows its problems intimately.

Perhaps the biggest of those problems is what gets washed in. In addition to litter, Wilkinson measures nitrates and phosphates from fertilizer, pharmaceuticals that pass through our systems or are flushed down the toilet, chlorides that come from road salt, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from automobile combustion and fecal matter from dogs, geese and humans.
Another issue is that there’s just too much water. Wilkinson said that our sewer system has essentially been designed to move water as quickly as possible off roadways, into pipes or drainage ditches, and into waterways. This increase in volume causes streams to flow faster, leading to erosion and flooding, which is particularly damaging in cities. “It’s a major issue for urban areas. It kills people. It destroys property. We spend a lot of money on flooding,” Wilkinson said.

This problem is compounded by the fact that streams are often rerouted to make way for new development. “One of the issues for urban areas is we typically view all the things that are natural as a problem instead of an integral part of the natural system,” Wilkinson said. He points out a car dealership at a bend in the creek. “I’m guessing all that would actually be the flood plain, so when a flood came, all that area which is now filled with material could store water and it can’t store the flood water right now, so it’s got to go downstream. When that happens over and over again, which has happened in this watershed and in many other watersheds, it becomes a flooding issue.”

There are ways to mitigate these problems, but the U.S. Geological Survey is a science-based organization. Their role is to measure and analyze, not evangelize. If the waterways are the patients, the Survey provides a diagnosis. It is up to other organizations to nurse them back to health.

Greater Stewardship Through Greater Understanding

Meet Kate Delahunt, the education director for the Blue River Watershed Association. She spends her days teaching people about the problems that Wilkinson talked about. “We’ve been talking about solid waste management for years, and we’ve been talking about air quality for years, so now it’s time for water quality to take the front page,” said Delahunt.  

The association is a non-profit community organization that runs educational programs focused on restoring and protecting the Blue River watershed throughout the Kansas City area, on both sides of the state line. Their audience runs the gamut from church groups to concertgoers. Just days after we visited Indian Creek, she was there with a group of Girl Scouts, picking up trash. “I was just at the rotary club last Friday morning, and then Saturday night we did a table event at a rave music show at the Midland Theater,” said Delahunt. Besides these outreach presentations, the watershed association does demonstration projects, conducts classes for students and adults and coordinates a stream “adoption” program on the Kansas side of the watershed.

One of their most popular programs is called T.R.U.E. Blue, or Teaching Rivers in an Urban Environment. Delahunt, with the help of adult volunteers, visits fifth grade through high school classrooms. Over several sessions they teach students about watersheds and the ways they are affected by the urban landscape, show them how to use kits to measure the quality of the water, and then take them to a waterway near their school to actually conduct tests. You can take an audio tour through one of these sessions here.

Delahunt said, “The kids actually follow all the safety protocol and all the testing protocol.  We take all the data that the kids have collected at the creek, and then the kids go through a very extensive math procedure for changing their raw data into scientific data.” Those measurements are collected and catalogued through the Missouri Department of Conservation, adding to a database that is actually used by the Environmental Protection Agency and municipalities in the region.

Delahunt says this hands-on experience engages students. That was certainly the case at a course recently held for Allison Leever’s eighth grade science class at Westridge Middle School. Aside from the inevitable giggling during a fecal bacteria discussion, the students listened raptly and measured meticulously as they analyzed samples from a bucket of creek water. “I didn’t know anything before about any of it,” said Maddie Langford, one of Leever’s students. “It’s weird to think that it’s dirty when you are used to drinking clean water all the time.”

This is exactly the type of awareness that the Blue River Watershed Association hopes to foster through its work. “It’s extremely important for people to understand why that’s happening, how it’s happening and what we can all do to try to reduce the flooding and the amount of pollution that’s washing into the creeks and streams,” Delahunt said. “You’re not going to get people to engage in hands-on stewardship activities if they don’t understand why they’re doing it, and how their effort can actually help improve water quality.”

However, even Delahunt acknowledges that in addition to changes in individual behavior, watershed health needs to be considered at the infrastructural level.

Kansas City’s Storm Water System Gets a Green Overhaul

Enter Francis Reddy, senior engineer for the Kansas City, Missouri Water Resources Department. Perhaps the quintessential water resources engineer, when he leaves work, he even goes home to sleep on a water bed.

Reddy is in charge of the Middle Blue River Basin Green Solutions Pilot Project. The $48 million overhaul is part of a much larger, EPA-mandated overhaul of the Kansas City storm water and sewage system. It aims to test innovative green solutions for mitigating storm water overflow on a nationally unprecedented scale.

The city currently has a combined sewage system, meaning that storm water and waste water are handled by the same system.  Normally this system works well, and all water is treated before being returned to the river, but during periods of heavy rainfall, the flows of storm water overwhelm the system, sending a mixture of untreated waste water and storm water directly into waterways.  

The “grey”, or conventional, solution to this issue is to send water into big storage tanks. “We collect it, store it and then, after the rain event, bleed it back into the sanitary sewer system,” said Reddy. In a 744-acre area near the Marlborough Heights neighborhood, the city is taking a different approach: green solutions.

“We are talking about rain gardens, infiltration galleries, bioswales, and cascades,” said Reddy. These are all methods of using natural features to store and treat storm water before it even reaches the sewer system. Rain gardens, for example, are beds of native species planted in modified soil that can hold water and allow it to penetrate back to the water table.  Most of these elements will be installed in the public right of way, between the sidewalk and the street.

Reddy expects a number of benefits over traditional methods. The installation cost is almost 20% cheaper, and it should reduce the volume of storm water that needs to be treated by 13%. There is also an aesthetic advantage.  Attractive gardens will replace what would have been above ground storage tanks in a “grey” approach. “We hope to not only improve property value, but neighborhood pride, and to revitalize the neighborhood,” Reddy said.

Still, many unknowns remain. It is a pilot project after all, and there are not a lot of data on the long term impact of a green storm water system at this scale. One issue is maintenance costs–though rain gardens and bioswales are able to filter some pollutants, others need to be settled out in “fore bays,” which have to be cleaned out after every storm. Trash needs to be removed, plants will need to be occasionally replaced and weeding will be required.

On top of that, no one knows exactly how the system will perform–one reason that the solutions are only being introduced at an experimental scale. “Any time you use a new technology, the risks are very high. If they don’t work we may have to retrofit with more traditional solutions,” Reddy said. Nonetheless, the project represents a major step forward. “The city did it to see if we can try to utilize the triple bottom line–economical, social, and environmental–to improve the quality of life in Kansas City. We believe green solutions are the way of the future,” said Reddy.  Whether these systems are indeed adopted by other municipalities will depend on the pilot project’s performance. Construction will start in early June, and once it is established the city will begin figuring out if it was a success.

Connor Donevan, Andrew Leicht and Jack Rafferty, students in Simran Sethi’s journalism class at the University of Kansas are learning to communicate complex issues via social networking. This is part of a series of posts from a class exploring the intersection of social media and social justice and using water and design as its primary lenses of inquiry.

Follow the conversation on twitter, #metropolisH2O.

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