Tour highlights efforts to improve reservoir water quality

Even though concerns about drinking water and water quality in Marion County pale in comparison to the coastal areas hit recently by Hurricane Katrina, those locals concerns continue to be addressed.

The Marion Reservoir Watershed Steering Committee led a tour of portions of the Marion County Watershed last Tuesday to illustrate the impact agricultural producers are making in a collective fight to maintain high water quality at the reservoir.

Marion Reservoir is the source of drinking water for Hillsboro, Marion and Peabody.

Peggy Blackman, coordinator of the Marion Reservoir 319 Water Quality Project Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy, and Dale Ehlers, Natural Resources Conservation Services technician, provided the commentary for nearly 30 producers and officials who participated in the tour of northwest Marion County.

“It’s very easy to sit back and think nothing is happening, but there’s a lot happening,” Blackman said. “This reservoir is ours and we need to accept ownership for our water.”

Before the water-purification plants at Hillsboro and Marion ingest untreated water from the reservoir, she said, steps are being taken to ensure that water is of the highest quality possible.

“I don’t feel a lot of our people in the general public actually know what all has occurred in conservation measures within the watershed itself,” Blackman said.

She wants the public to know that agricultural producers in the upper Cottonwood River sub-basin are tackling the challenges head-on.

With a drainage area of about 204 square miles-roughly 128,000 acres-Marion Reservoir covers 6,000 surface acres of water.

Blackman and Ehlers told tour participants that the main purpose for conservation practices in this area was to prevent silting along French Creek and the Cottonwood River-and ultimately Marion Reservoir.

Under the auspices of the Watershed Restoration & Protection Strategy-commonly referred to by the acronym WRAPS-producers have become well-versed in “Best Management Practices” (BMPs) in an effort to reduce soil erosion, stabilize stream banks, develop grass buffers, create waterways and terraces, provide quality water for cattle while reducing waste runoff, replace failing septic systems and provide options for using marginal crop land.

The goal of WRAPS is to eventually decrease the total phosphorous load in Marion Reservoir by 75 percent.

Since 2003, WRAPS’s cost-share programs have generated about $145,000 for projects in Marion County; of that amount, about $75,000 is federal money.

During the tour, Ehlers talked about producers who have converted their operations to 100 percent no-till, and others who have been more reluctant to make that change.

“From what we’ve seen, the best method is to terrace the land and then go to the no-till system,” Ehlers said, although he declined to formally endorse one method over another.

In addition to WRAPS, the Marion County Conservation District also has strong partnerships with the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams (KAWS), the State Conservation Commission, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Kansas Water Office.

Tour participants were shown examples of parallel terraces, highly erodible land treatments, constructed wetland and stream-bank cut structures, marginal crop-land conversions, wastewater lagoons, livestock wastewater systems and buffer and filter strips.

The group was served a noon meal at the Tampa Senior Center that was provided by the Tampa Community Association.

Also on the tour were Marion Krehbiel and Sig Collins, representatives from the Cheney Reservoir WRAPS Project, which has experienced significant success in conjunction with the City of Wichita.

“We’ve found it’s much cheaper to go back upstream and treat the water going into the lake than it is to treat the water coming back out,” Collins said. “But it all takes time. It won’t happen overnight.

“There’s a great need to monitor your water as well,” he added. “You have to go to producers with real numbers if you expect them to get on board-and your goals need to be realistic.”

Rob Beilfus, representing KDHE, said WRAPS is the buzz word in water protection.

“People at the state level are pooling resources,” Beilfus said. “Drinking water is increasingly more important to all of us each year, so we have a huge stake in keeping our water quality at the highest standards.”

Terry Holt, representing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the Corps is interested in working with local districts.

“Our greatest concern with Marion Reservoir is phosphorous concentration and bank stabilization,” Holt said.

But recent budget cuts have tied the hands of the Corps.

“We have technical expertise to carry out studies,” Holt said. “But we need funding in order to make those studies a reality.”

Blackman concluded the tour by emphasizing the need for area agencies to work cooperatively with each other instead of trying to solve problems separately.

“I’m trying to encourage the communities that rely on the lake for their public water source to have a stronger buy-in than what they’ve got,” Blackman said. “Cities and counties need to be willing to support our efforts.

“We need producers to come in with needs and we’ll help them develop plans to help ensure our water supply remains safe.”

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