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.
Some of the photos with the stories were taken by Larry Schwarm, the distinguished professor of photography at Wichita State University. He traveled across Kansas in 2012 to photograph people and places in agriculture to support the National Science Foundation’s Biofuels and Climate Change: Farmers’ Land Use Decisions project coordinated by the University of Kansas.
Water in Kansas
- Contaminated water is just a part of life in the south-central Kansas farm town of Pretty Prairie.
- Uncertainties about water quality in Hiawatha create tough trade-offs for low-income families.
- Plentiful access to water fuels prosperity in a rural Republic County community.
- Clean drinking water for Southeast Kansas communities is essential but costly.
Every Kansas community has a story about water. But the story differs depending on where you are and even what you do for a living.
Mention “water in Kansas” and the discussion often quickly turns to the economic issues of water and agriculture. Eighty-five percent of all water in Kansas is used in irrigation systems that provide water to commodity crops.
To reduce or prolong the life of the state’s groundwater supply would carry both immediate and long-term economic impacts. The supply varies dramatically across the state. Some areas are thought to have hundreds of years of water left. Others may have less than two decades.
About 10 percent of the state’s water goes to municipal use. All Kansas public water systems, regardless of where they are or how many customers they serve, are required by law to provide safe and clean drinking water. It’s a growing challenge in the state’s smaller communities, which must treat their water for a host of chemicals and contaminants regulated by the federal government.
In some of those smaller communities, no one thinks twice about drinking the water from the tap in their homes, even if they know it exceeds the maximum limits of certain contaminants. But parents of infants in the state’s lowest-income families in some communities spend their limited funds on bottled water to protect their children from water that may not be safe.