J500 Media and the Environment

What’s up with the Kaw? by amandat09

I was in the Cayman Islands with my family a few years ago when a cab driver asked us where we were from. When we told him Kansas, his reaction surprised us. He starting rattling tales of how he loved the idea of wide open land and sprawling space with fresh rivers. He said he would trade the perfectly sculpted beaches and salty waters in a heartbeat for a fresh river or two. In an attempt not to dash his grandeur vision of Kansas, I withheld my negative comments on what our rivers can be like…

Last year, my best friend’s roommate started complaining about a rash on her arms and back. Big red welts starting showing up on her skin, and her doctor gave her a pretty good guess as to the reason: she’s on the KU rowing team, and contaminants from the Kansas River were most likely the cause. It went away after she took three different prescriptions, but the idea that a river the produces about 50% of the water for Lawrence residents can produce itchy welts when it comes in contact with skin makes me cringe.

Have you ever gone swimming in the Kaw?

Have you ever gone swimming in the Kaw?

I’ve worked with Debbie Baker at the Kansas Biological Survey as a story source a few times during my journalism career here at KU. I’ve taken an interest in water issues with the rivers around Kansas, and she’s told me about a lot of its issues. And….it can be gross.  Runoff from agriculture around Lawrence can result in larger-than-normal amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Kaw. If you ever notice your tap water tasting or smelling a bit off, agriculture is the reason why. These are also responsible for eutrofication of our rivers, which is why they can look so…..dead.

I’ve lived in Kansas my whole life, and have yet to find these beautiful clear rivers that our cab driver had so nostalgically ingrained in his mind.

-Amanda Thompson


6 Comments so far
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I was wondering (prior to reading this post) if members of the rowing team had stories to tell about the water quality of the Kansas River. It’s terrible to think that we might have to take prescription drugs in order to drink our water.

Comment by matthewtb

One of my friends once wore glow in the dark paint for Hallowe’en. Her costume? She was someone who fell into the Kaw and got covered by, as she jokingly pretended, radioactive material. Sadly, it is not far from the truth.

I loved your link to the water reports, but I couldn’t understand them exactly. They seem really scary, though…

Comment by brennad87

Amanda, that story about your friend’s rash kind of freaks me out. The way our city is designed, people only ever seem to pay attention to the river if they’re crossing the bridge into East Lawrence, are part of the rowing team, or are one of the few people who use the bike paths over there. Yet, the river is a big part of what Lawrence is. Mt. Oread is there because it sits on the water divide between the Kansas and Wakarusa Rivers. The fact that we are subjecting it to such gross mistreatment, at the expense of our own health, is shocking.

Comment by justinl7

It’s amazing how many people just accept the Kaw for what it is and don’t seem to have any second thoughts about it. Many poor members of our community rely on the Kaw for its fish, but they poison themselves with increased levels of mercury from the coal plant that sits on the river, too.

The river is such a big ecosystem. Where should we start looking to clean it up?

Comment by Lauren Keith

I still don’t know that much about the are and never knew the river was in such bad shape. That is so sad to me. One of the things I miss most about Texas is floating down a cool river on a hot summer day. I’m sure those rivers are not perfectly healthy, but in many spots you could see straight to the bottom.

Comment by mackenzies09

Mackenzie- I’ve floated down rivers like that in Tennessee, and it’s so nice! We have these two rivers right in our backyards here in Lawrence but I doubt anyone would think of doing that here because they’re so badly polluted.

Comment by amandat09

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