Running Dry | Targeting Toxins And Other Emerging Issues

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - The same toxins from algae that spark warnings at Kansas lakes and recently shut down the water supply for Toledo, Ohio are showing up in the source of water for several cities, including Topeka.

City of Topeka chemist Mary Von Arb is among those working to ensure they don't make it past the intake from the Kansas River.

Earlier this month, Topeka joined a new study by the American Water Research Foundation with other utilities along the Kansas River, including Lawrence and Olathe. The goal is to optimize water treatment to ensure microtoxins from blue green algae never make it to home faucets.

Emerging Threat
The issue made headlines in early August, when a major algae bloom on Lake Erie blew directly into the water intake for Toledo, Ohio. It contaminated that city's water supply and forced residents to find alternative water sources for their daily activities for several days.

In Topeka, utilities superintendent Don Rankin says the toxins started turning up in the Kansas River a couple years ago. They likely originate from Milford Lake, near Junction City. Milford has seen an increased number of blue green algae blooms in recent years, which have sparked warnings against direct contact with the water. Water from Milford enters the Kansas River.

"We are seeing toxins transported, but they're low levels by the time they hit us," Rankin said.

Even so, he says the city is looking to be proactive as data suggests algae blooms in the lakes could become more prevalent. Already, the city spends $350,000 a year on water quality testing. Topeka is paying $28,000 toward the $200,000 cost of the new microtoxins study.

Vision for Quality
Water quality is part of the Kansas water vision plan being developed by the state. The same sediment reducing the reservoirs' capacity is also loading the water with phosphorous and nitrogen. It comes from sewage and the runoff from agriculture and lawns. Those key ingredients help blue green algae thrive, especially in warm weather, and warmer, stiller waters, which seems to make Milford particularly susceptible.

The Kansas Farm Bureau points out the current levels are the result of five decades of accumulation, but says efforts to improve and reduce farm sediment are always a focus.

The state agrees agriculture is a key partner in the discussions.

"Most producers want to keep (those products) on their property," said Susan Metzger, chief of policy and planning for the Kansas Water Office.

The good news is, right now, Topeka and other utilities report no toxins getting through any level of treatment. However, Rankin says the EPA is looking at them as an emerging contaminant and is expected to implement what are known as "unregulated contaminant monitoring requirements."

Metzger says the state applauds local entities for joining the effort to study these developing issues.

"Although there are modern technologies in place, we want that added assurance the water we're delivering to customers really is clean," she said.

Infrastructure Issues
While city officials are confident the water they're getting out of the Kansas River is safe, Rankin says he is not so confident in how it's getting to homes.

Statewide, water officials estimate Kansas will need to invest $4 billion dollars in the next 20 years in water infrastructure. For Topeka, Rankin estimates that in order to replace aging water mains and stay ahead of the curve, the city will need to spend $6 million annually. He says that would get all 850 miles of city water mains replaced every 100 years. He estimates another $5 million a year for wastewater infrastructure and $4.5 million more for stormwater.

"We don't want the break to occur in the first place," Rankin said. "When we know it's old, we want to replace it."

Rankin says water main breaks mean more than just losing service. They also inconvenience drivers with detours, tear up streets and create what may be unnecessary emergency situations.

But it's up to citizens to make the investment.

"What level of outages are you willing to tolerate?" Rank said.

"It's soon"
Rankin says he commends the state for taking the leadership role on a long-term vision plan. He says the questions on infrastructure, quality and supply are large. No single community can tackle them alone and everyone has a stake in the answers.

"It's not 100 years from now," he said. "It's soon."