August 10, 2014

Is Wichita’s water at risk like Toledo’s?

Conditions that led to Toledo residents temporarily having to stop using their drinking water because of toxic conditions in Lake Erie aren’t likely to happen to Cheney Reservoir, where Wichita gets 60 percent of its water.

When residents of Toledo, Ohio, were told last weekend not to drink their city’s water because it was toxic, Wichitans might have paused to wonder:

Could it happen here?

Bad things always happen in places like New York City, right? But Toledo? It’s about the same size as Wichita.

And, like Toledo, Wichita draws most of its water from a lake.

The apparent source of the toxins in Toledo’s water came from blue-green algae blooms. Reports of those blooms are common for Kansas lakes and ponds.

OK, let’s pause a moment.

Cheney Reservoir supplies 60 percent of Wichita’s water. Toledo gets its water from Lake Erie.

Cheney has a water surface of 14.9 square miles in a watershed setting that’s largely agricultural. Lake Erie has 9,910 square miles surrounded largely by urban and industrial settings.

So are we safe?

“It’s very unlikely what happened in Toledo would happen here,” said Alan King, Wichita’s director of public works and utilities.

Reasons abound, including the size difference, wind factors and what surrounds both bodies of water.

But perhaps most important is a plan that’s been in place about 20 years that helps filter what flows into Cheney from the 633,000-acre watershed.

“The real cure to all these problems is better management of the watershed,” said Tom Langer, director of the bureau of environmental health for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. “It’s the only way.

“You can’t throw a giant Alka Seltzer into a lake and fix the problem. What’s in the water is there.”

When the toxins from the blue-green algae become so bad, they become fluid.

“Purification does not take that out,” Langer said.

And that’s where Toledo found itself. For two days, Toledo and area residents were told not to drink their water.


There are many kinds of blue-green algae in bodies of water all the time, Langer said.

In small amounts, that’s not a problem, he said. But keep feeding it with pollutants – under the right conditions with plenty of sunlight – and it grows into a toxic monster.

Investigators are still trying to determine what fed Toledo’s monster. One suggestion has been leaking sewage from a municipal plant.

But there are plenty of sources for pollutants for such a large lake. Toledo sits on Lake Erie’s southwest end; Buffalo, N.Y., is on the lake’s far northeast. In between there are Cleveland and Erie, Pa.

Runoff from those cities’ streets, parking lots and lawns are factors, as are farm fields.

The Detroit River flows into the lake. The lake has a heavy traffic of commercial ships.

The sheer mass of the lake’s surface attracts far more pollutants than could ever land in Cheney, Langer said.

A wind and wave pattern conspired to make it worse, pushing the algae into a mass in the lake’s southwest corner just above Toledo’s intake valves.

Toxins are released as the billions and billions of algae cells die, Langer said.

“Toledo was seeing toxic readings in the finished water supply,” he added. “In Kansas, we haven’t seen the magnitude of the bloom that they have on the Great Lakes. Not even close.”

The type of toxin in Toledo’s algae – microsystin – has never been found in Kansas, Langer said.

Steady wind

Now let’s look at Cheney Reservoir.

It’s in a rural setting, with no problems about runoff from urban and industrial wastes. A much smaller water surface helps, too.

Cheney isn’t as clear as Lake Erie, so not as much sunlight can penetrate and help the algae grow.

Water from the Ninnescah River flows into the north end of the reservoir. The city’s intake valves are on the south side.

“By the time the water reaches the intakes,” King said, “natural biological action reduces the pollutants. The water is in good shape when we put it in the pipe.”

Kansas’ steady wind in the Cheney area keeps the algae “churned up and dissipates it,” Langer said.

But perhaps most important are the precautions taken in managing the Cheney’s watershed, officials said.

Since the mid-1990s, Cheney Lake Watershed Inc. – a private nonprofit with a member board made up of residents from the four-county watershed area – has taken steps to control what flows into the 50-year-old reservoir.

Area ranchers and farmers are eligible to receive incentive payments if they take conservation measures, said Debra Ary, utilities engineer for the city of Wichita.

That includes such things as no-till farming, putting up a fences so cattle can’t wander down to the Ninnescah or feeder streams, keeping land in pasture instead of crops, and controlling amount of fertilizer is used to lessen how much runs off.

Allowing grass to grow along banks of the river and streams helps filter the runoff.

“Anything along those lines upstream helps,” Langer said.

Funds for the incentives come from federal, state and city of Wichita sources. Wichita has averaged paying $82,000 annually for those incentives, Ary said.

Petri dish

One of Cheney’s toughest years for algae came in 2011, Langer said.

There was a wet spring, causing flooding and excess runoff upstream.

Heavy flooding in the Northern Plains states filled more rivers with pollutants, and much of those eventually flowed into Cheney.

Cheney, like all Kansas lakes, is built for flood control.

“They’re like a stopper,” Langer said. “What flows in there, stays there.”

A wet spring was followed by a hot summer with several days exceeding 100 degrees and plenty of sunshine to aid the algae growth.

“It created an enormous Petri dish,” Langer said, “and the algae went nuts. We had cell counts that we’d never seen before.”

Yet it wasn’t so bad that it affected the city’s water supply.

“We have a pretty darn good water quality,” King said.

While nothing in the state has come close to Toledo’s experience, Langer said he hopes it serves as a warning for Kansans to do what they can individually to protect the water.

“Everyone – agriculture and urban – has a stake in this thing,” he said. “Think about the number of times you fertilize your yard, the kinds of chemicals you’re using. Instead of having that wonderful green yard through the heat of the summer, maybe you change your landscaping.

“A lot of people who live along lakes complain about the water’s condition. But you visit them and – guess what? – they have beautiful lawns.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rickplumlee.

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