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K-State Today

December 17, 2015



Kansas State University team helps city of Wichita move forward on water quality plan

By Pat Melgares

A proposal developed by a Kansas State University research team to involve upstream rural agricultural producers in improving water quality in the Little Arkansas River and the city of Wichita is making steady progress toward becoming reality.

If implemented, it will be the first formal agreement in Kansas in which an urban area will pay landowners for practices that reduce pollutants in public waterways, according to project leader Trisha Moore.

"Urban stormwater runoff contains pollutants that degrade water quality, so managing it is important," said Moore, an assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering. "However, the cost to implement best management practices in urban areas is much greater than in rural areas."

As an example, Moore said the cost for cities to implement practices to remove sediment in runoff may cost 2-3 times more than removing the same amount of sediment from agricultural areas using a practice such as no-till.

"Compared to individual properties or housing developments in cities, producers can do more with less money to reduce the pollutant load coming down the river," she said.

The university's proposal affects — and potentially benefits — companies building housing or business developments, which are required by cities to implement a plan to manage the quality of stormwater runoff from their properties.

Instead of building and maintaining expensive stormwater treatment systems, such as a pond, developers can contribute a yearly fee that is held as "credit" to pay upstream landowners who implement best management practices, or BMPs, that reduce pollutants in the Little Arkansas River.

The proposed fee for new developments, though not yet final, will likely be between $30-$40 per acre per year. The program would be voluntary for landowners and developers.

BMPs describe ways in which landowners are encouraged to manage land or on-farm activities to reduce or prevent pollution of surface and groundwater in the watershed, or the area of land that flows to a common waterway.

Many farmers already are familiar with the BMPs that would affect the city of Wichita's plan, such as no-till farming, vegetated filter strips and many more. The proposal submitted by Moore and her colleagues reduces costs for developers, provides a financial incentive for farmers, saves money for the city of Wichita, and potentially reduces homeowners' water bill.

"When there's more pollutants in the water, you have to spend more money to remove them," Moore said. "If the city is spending less money to remove pollutants, then the consumer pays less to get the quality of drinking water that they've come to expect."

Even with paying a fee per acre of development, Kansas State University's economic analysis indicated that land developers may save as much as $20,000 over 50 years on water quality practices alone.

"Those savings may be conservative, as the analysis considered only typical, and not major restorative, maintenance costs," Moore said.

The city's stormwater management board and Public Works Director Alan King recently submitted Kansas State University's proposal to the Wichita City Council for approval, which would then need permission from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to implement the plan.

Kansas State University's proposed plan included input from water engineers, economists, and agricultural and watershed specialists; as well as staff from the city of Wichita and Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

"Too often in urban areas and rural areas, we do our own things to improve water quality, even when we're part of the same watershed," Moore said. "The goal of this program in Wichita is to be more effective in reaching our overall water quality goals by working in partnership."