Dawn Buehler, executive director of Friends of the Kaw, strives to expand appreciation for the Kansas River’s educational and recreational opportunities. Protecting water quality is a priority because the river is a source of drinking water for 800,000 people. (Greg Zolnerowich)
TOPEKA — Riverkeeper Dawn Buehler can close her eyes and give voice to the sensation of gliding down the Kansas River near Manhattan.
“From your boat in the middle of the river, you can look up and see the green rolling landscape of the Flint Hills,” she said. “It’s absolutely breathtaking to make that journey. And you can really feel all of Kansas and its beauty as you’re making your way.”
Buehler, who grew up on a 2,000-acre vegetable farm along the river near DeSoto, is executive director of Friends of the Kaw. She also serves as chairwoman of the Kansas Water Authority.
Her quest is to convince Kansans to value the Kansas River as a rich recreational, educational, economic and environmental resource. The river zig-zags from Junction City, where the Republican and Smoky Hill rivers merge, to Kansas City, Kansas, where the waterway meets the mighty Missouri River.
She told the Kansas Reflector podcast that along the route the public has an opportunity to experience one of the last wild places in the state. It’s an attractive locale for fishing and paddle sports, she said.
From the seat of a canoe or kayak, a person can gain rare perspectives of bald eagles, blue heron and other wildlife tucked into remote sections of the river.
“Dig a hole in the sand, build a bonfire — there’s plenty of driftwood on the Kansas River,” Buehler said. “But you don’t need a reservation. You don’t need a permit. The only license that you need is to go fishing. You think about the fact that we’re 49th out of 50 states for public lands, and you’ve got a 173-mile-long public land right in your backyard. And a lot of people don’t even know about it. They drive over the bridge and don’t think twice about it.”
She said braided sandbars were a hallmark of the Kansas River, which has become increasingly accessible during the past 30 years as the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism has worked with non-government organizations to install 19 boat ramps about 10 miles apart. It might take an average of four hours to six hours to paddle one of those sections between ramps, she said.
Above the high water mark where the vegetation changes on the banks is considered private property of landowners. The zone between the muddy banks, including the water and sandbars, is public property.
“You can camp on a sandbar overnight. Pitch a tent. It is absolutely phenomenal to see a Kansas River sunset,” Buehler said.
With volunteers at the nonprofit Friends of the Kaw, Buehler works to help educate landowners, communities and individuals about the Kansas River. The methods include a variety of school programs, expansion of ramp access, promotion of recreational initiatives, monitoring for pollution, organization of trash collection events as well as advocacy on the political front.
Friends of the Kaw is part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international water protection organization of more than 300 organizations in 34 countries. Membership in the alliance requires hiring of a riverkeeper — Buehler — to be eyes and ears of the Kansas River.
Anyone unconvinced about importance of the Kansas River ought to consider this: 800,000 people get their drinking water from the river.
The old tires
Buehler said Friends of the Kaw monitored the Kansas River throughout the year for sources of pollution that ranged from obvious trash dumped over the banks to difficult-to-detect runoff from industry.
“I just do not understand that in 2021, why people are still dumping trash into the river, but it happens. And it’ll be on private property. I pity the person that dumps on the Kansas River because we’re going to find it,” she said.
She also there was a persistent effort to remove remnants of unsuccessful attempts to control erosion. The placement of thousands of tires on the banks over the years cannot hold back nature, she said. Flooding has set the tires free for deposit elsewhere in the river.
“The only thing that really is going to hold the bank is deep-rooted trees and grasses. We know that now, but we didn’t know that then,” Buehler said.
Volunteers partnering with the City of Eudora, Big O Tires in Lawrence and Evergy’s green team to remove more than 450 tires from the Kansas River last fall. They were dug out of sandbars one by one and hauled to shore. There is a follow-up tire collection project in Shawnee scheduled for October.
“One of my goals is that by the time I retire, we’re going to have all these legacy, what I call legacy old dump sites, cleaned up,” Buehler said.
Volunteers also have been working the past four years to remove fragments of thick battery cases dumped into the river decades ago between Manhattan and St. George, she said.
“One of the biggest things that we’ve managed to do in the last five years is really increase our partnerships up and down the river,” Buehler said.
The outdoor company REI agreed to help Friends of the Kaw with recreation and education events. The City of DeSoto provided funding to redo a rain garden. In Topeka, there’s an active program to redevelop the riverfront area. There’s a riverbank restoration project with the City of Eudora, she said.
Buehler said flooding in 2019 pushed Kansas reservoirs to the limit and generated interest in potential of reconnecting the Kansas River floodplain through development of wetlands. These wetland areas could be used to store water during times of surplus for use during drought, she said.
The lower end of the Kansas River from Edwardsville down to Kansas City has few sandbars because it has been heavily dredged for the past century.
“That’s one of the things that we advocate against,” she said. “We want to see dredging moved out of the river and into appropriately sited pit mines. It’s very devastating to the Kansas River itself. It can accelerate erosion. If I was a landowner on the river, and there was a dredge near my my land, I would not be happy about that, because you’re gonna have increased erosion and you may end up losing acres over it.”
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