When Kansans think of groundwater problems, the first thing that comes to mind is the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer, but the quality of the groundwater can present challenges as well.
At the 2019 Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water, two municipal leaders shared their experiences with groundwater pollution and their vision for how to deal with them.
Fred Jones, Garden City Water Systems manager, talked about the problem of radionuclides, especially uranium, in the city’s groundwater in the Arkansas River alluvium, while Darrin Unruh, a member of the Pretty Prairie City Council, discussed his city’s struggle with excess nitrates in the city’s drinking water because of pollution of the water wells it draws from.
Jones said radionuclides in the groundwater around Lakin was discovered in 2003, and well monitoring determined that the contamination was serious enough to require reverse osmosis or filtration treatment to remove the pollutants.
“One issue is that we have to dispose of the wastewater from the treatment process in an injection well,” he said. “The levels of minerals and radionuclides don’t allow us to be the treatment waste back into the river. Basically, that is water that has to leave the environment.”
The price tag has been steep. The public cost of the system totaled $7 million even before increased operating cost are factored in and have resulted in a 115% cost increase to customers in Lakin, he said.
“Aside from the cost, it is very difficult to find highly qualified operators for those sophisticated filtration systems in the rural towns of western Kansas. We are looking at the possibility of developing regional public water systems that would allow several small towns to pool their resources to operate one plant from which water could be delivered to all the users in the expanded system,” Jones said.
He said the problem also exists in eastern Colorado and the water in the river as it arrives at the Kansas border is polluted with radionuclides. He said the Kansas Department of Health and Environment is monitoring wells along the U.S. Highway 50 corridor from Colorado to Dodge City.
A manmade problem
The problem in Pretty Prairie, a small town located about 45 miles northwest of Wichita, was caused primarily by farming practices, according to Unruh. He said U.S. EPA regulations require concentrations of less than 10 parts per million of nitrates, which can cause harm to pregnant women, unborn babies and small children.
He said monitoring of the town’s primary well tested between 15 and 20 parts per million in 1989, leading the town to drill a new million.
“That one came in really good, only 1 to 2 parts per million,” Unruh said. “But that soon changed. In our area, the aquifer is only about 30 feet down and it’s pretty easy for those nutrients to move down. In 1993, we got a special allowance from EPA, allowing us to have up to 15 parts per million and still be in compliance. We made bottled water available for free to residents. Then, in 2012, levels hit 20 parts per million.”
NITRATE POLLUTION: Darren Unruh, city councilman from Pretty Prairie, said the small town of 605 people with fewer than 300 water connection was faced with finding a way to pay for a $2.4 million water treatment program to remove nitrates from the town’s drinking water.
By 2015, the city had seen three consecutive quarters with levels about 20 parts per million — double the legal limit, and they began searching for ways to finance a treatment plant that that could remove the nitrates. Three times the community applied for a USDA Community Development Block Grant and three times they were turned down.
“We made some mistakes in our grant writing, but what this really boiled down was an epic failure of government,” Unruh said. “This should not happen. We are a small town of 605 people with fewer than 300 water connections and we were left to figure out how, on our own, to finance a $2.4 million project and how to pay for an added $13,000 a year in electricity costs to run the new plant.”
He said the community turned to debt — taking out a 20-year loan to build the reverse osmosis plant and get it up and running.
Answer lies in regenerative agriculture
What Unruh thinks society as a whole has to learn from the Pretty Prairie experience is that an effective water cycle requires us to practice regenerative agriculture.
According to him, five principles guide that practice:
1. Keep the soil covered. That leads to less evaporation, less blowing and less water erosion.
2. Minimize soil disruption. That means no-till farming practices and as close to no-chemical farming as we can get. We are lucky that so far, the contamination is nutrients, but we have to be aware that chemicals like atrazine could be next.
3. Landowners need to keep a living root in the ground all year round. Those living roots keep the soil alive and use the nutrients rather than allowing them to leach into the water, he said.
4. Farmers must increase the diversity of life. “That means diversity of plants, wildlife, even insects,” Unruh said. “We need to mimic nature. You don’t see monoculture in nature; not in the rangeland and not in the woodlands.”
5. Integrate livestock. “The prairie soils were built with large herbivores,” he said. “We need to educate ourselves and then educate others. We need projects to demonstrate that on a statewide level.”
Unruh said he thinks the path forward to a cleaner environment and secure drinking water supplies lies in more public-private partnerships like the Cheney Lake Watershed where the city of Wichita has provided financial help for local partner/producers to protect the reservoir from sedimentation as well as nutrient overload.
Their efforts have been so successful that the Army Corps of Engineers sees an indefinite lifetime for the lake, which provides drinking water to the city as well as a popular recreational location.