LENEXA — Johnson County found that plants are better than pipelines in controlling storm runoff and flooding and preserving water quality.
Thursday, about 50 city and county leaders and environmental educators from the Wichita area toured Johnson County to see how communities have solved those problems.
Years before being green became the in thing, Johnson County became a model for Kansas in developing environmentally friendly methods of controlling storm waters that can run out of control across the prairie.
It was the only county in Kansas to take advantage of a 0.2 percent sales tax passed by the state Legislature to fund stormwater development in 1988.
Since then, it has raised more than $200 million to pay for a network of wetlands and other natural filtering systems that officials and engineers said have created new parks and increased value for residential developers.
Wichita-area officials spent the day seeing the results of that investment. Participants included:
* An official from Hutchinson, which is trying to clean up the Cow Creek running through downtown. It recently was cited for pollution by Environmental Protection Agency.
* Council members and planners from Wichita, which is seeing contamination from upstream agriculture, overuse of fertilizer on residential lawns and flooding problems across the city.
* City leaders from Derby, which sees pollution washing downstream from Wichita.
"Water knows no boundaries," said Aaron Bartlett, transportation planner for the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City. "So you need people upstream doing these practices, too."
Cooperation can happen, as it did with the Turkey Creek Corridor. The 10-mile series of trails and parks covers five cities in Johnson and Wyandotte counties along I-35.
The dedicated sales tax helped create the Indian Creek Greenway, which connects the Corporate Woods office park, residential neighborhoods and shopping centers through a series of woodland paths.
The city of Lenexa even added 911 services to bike and walking trails by adding signs so people can give their locations to emergency operators.
Native plants and natural filtering systems have taken the place of networks of underground pipes that eventually wear out, planners said.
"We no longer collect rainwater, get it out of the facility, send it downstream and make it someone else's problem," said Scott Schulte, environmental planner for Patti Banks Associates, a landscape architects firm.
The Kansas City area implemented policies and ordinances setting minimum property setbacks from stream and water banks and limited construction in flood plains, Schulte said.
Outside those buffer zones, houses have sprung up that sell easier because of the parks and green spaces created.
"Initially, a lot of developers were freaked out by this," Schulte said. "But they found they could build more houses, for less cost and the profit margin was greater."
Mark Buckingham, an engineer from Wichita, was impressed at the lakes and woodlands that have been developed as natural ponds to collect rain runoff and filter pollutants out of the water. They are home to fish and wildlife, surrounded by native prairie plants and rain gardens, nestled within residential areas.
"They've taken the time to create habitat, which is crucial," said Buckingham, of MKEC Engineering. "So many times, you just see a lake made by digging a bowl, filling it with water and them walking off and leaving it."
The tour, organized and funded by the Greenway Alliance and Regional Economic Area Partnership, is to help spur ideas for managing stormwater in Wichita.
Solutions can be as simple as not cutting out woodlands, but building around them instead.
"When you're clearing those, you're taking away hundreds of years that the system has been working to repair the water," said Larry Hoetmer, a planner for the Wichita Parks and Recreation Department.
Some of the practices are already being implemented in parts of Wichita.
Projects include porous parking lots, such as those at MKEC, near Central and Webb, and at Herman Hill Park, near Pawnee and Broadway. They allow the rain to soak in, rather than run off into a drainage system that leads to a waterway.
City Council member Jeff Longwell also pointed to Cadillac Lake near 29th North and Maize Road, which collects runoff from nearby businesses in the NewMarket Square area.
Businesses such as Lowe's have built filtering systems to remove sediment before the water reaches the lake, Longwell said.
He and other council members, such as Lavonta Williams, were hoping to pick up other ideas to bring back home.
"If we can see more efficient and innovative ideas," Longwell said, "it will help us in deciding policies and ordinances."