Editor’s note: Throughout this week, KHI News Service will publish a series of stories that explore water issues in four Kansas communities and regions, including how people access water, the economics of water and challenges of drinking it. Freelance journalist Sarah Green interviewed more than 50 Kansans in person, over the phone and via email over seven months to find these stories.
The most southeastern county in Kansas, Cherokee County, looks more like Missouri than the rest of Kansas.
The county is technically part of the Ozark Plateau, the heavily wooded region that begins just miles inside Kansas’ border and continues eastward into Missouri and south toward Oklahoma and Arkansas.
The Ozark aquifer, an underground reservoir that lies beneath the county in the rock formations that make up the western edge of the Ozarks, supplied drinking water to the people of Cherokee County for decades.
By the 1990s, the coal, lead and zinc that had been cut out of those rocks had long left the county. The once-thriving mining industry followed. Pollution, however, lingered on, threatening the quality of the water in the aquifer.
Local water districts became aware of the pollution, said John Epler, a member of the Cherokee County Rural Water District No. 3 since the early 1990s. And, he said, they were aware that they were using the fresh water from the aquifer faster than it could replenish itself.
Epler, a lifelong resident of Cherokee County who lives and farms outside Columbus, joined others from neighboring water districts to research possible solutions for sufficient clean water for years to come.
In 1998, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment approved the creation of a public wholesale water supply district, which allowed smaller rural water districts to join together to build a central water treatment plant that would serve multiple communities, rather than have each water district maintain its own plant.
They also explored developing new sources of water, including building a reservoir. They eventually found a way to acquire property and rights to use water from the Spring River that flows through Cherokee County.
The process took time. In June 2015, a modern plant with the ability to produce 1.3 million gallons of clean water per day opened for business on the Spring River southeast of Columbus.
Water districts work together
Epler is now the chairman of the Spring River Public Wholesale Water Supply District No. 19, which owns and operates the plant. The district sells water to the City of Columbus and several rural water systems, which in turn sell the water to their local customers.
Making the decision to build one central plant wasn’t easy, said Epler and others who worked on the project. Each water district had to agree to be part of the mix, instead of operating their own systems like they had since they were formed decades earlier.
“We’re the Little Balkans down here,” said Ron Westervelt, the water district’s treasurer, referring to the region’s history of immigrants from Eastern Europe who came to the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s to work in the mines.
“We’re independent and we want to be in control,” Epler added.
Patty Clark, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development agency in Kansas, said the most challenging part of projects like the one built in Cherokee County isn’t the project itself.
“The difficult work is navigating the issues of local control and the sense of winners vs. losers,” Clark said via email. “Our rural systems (water, city, county) will have to undertake the difficult — and sometimes contentious — work if they hope to survive in the challenging environment of fewer people, greater strain on the local tax base and continued strain on natural resources.”
‘Work in partnership to find solutions’
Kansas communities make investments in providing safe water to their residents. So do the state and federal governments.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development division alone has contributed $193.7 million in loans and $90.2 million in grants to water and waste disposal systems in Kansas since 2009, according to information provided by the agency’s Kansas office.
In 2014, the State Revolving Loan Fund based at KDHE made about $47 million in low-interest-rate loans for safe drinking water projects.
The Kansas Department of Commerce in January announced about $5.6 million in block grants for water and sewer projects in small, mostly rural communities. The grants are part of the federal Community Development Block Grant program.
The systems are so costly to build and maintain, Clark said, that it’s becoming more and more challenging for small communities to finance system upgrades on their own.
“Our small and very small rural communities, and our rural water systems, will need to work in partnership to find solutions through conservation, joint projects and affordable technology to deal with quality and quantity challenges ahead,” she said.
Meeting demand, now and in the future
The Spring River project in Cherokee County cost $16.5 million to build. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development division contributed $5.4 million in low-interest loans. The project also received more than $11 million in grants, made possible by USDA Rural Development and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Epler estimates that the Spring River water plant produces water for between 8,000 and 9,000 people in Cherokee County.
“This would not have happened without public funding,” he said. “If we’d had to go through ordinary financing resources, we would not have been able to afford it. The cost of water would have been too high.”
Westervelt believes the project is a worthwhile investment of public funds.
“I’m not a big fan of the government taking money and redistributing it,” he said. “But everyone has to give something, whether that’s money or time spent serving on these local boards. People don’t want to pay taxes for a bridge, but they want to go across that bridge.”
The grants and loans allowed the water district to build a plant that exceeded its current needs. The plant now produces about half of its maximum capacity, said general manager Eric Davolt.
“This plant will produce water for our grandchildren throughout their lives,” Epler said.
The water district could someday supply water to everyone who lives and works in Cherokee County, Epler and Westervelt said, and has the potential to assist towns and water districts in neighboring counties.
Epler and Westervelt said they were proud to be associated with the water district, and for what it could mean for the survival of their community.
And, they said, if for no other reason, it was worth the years of hard work for public health and safety.
“What is more important to human existence than safe, clean drinking water?” Epler said. “There’s nothing more important.”