Going with the Flow


When it comes to understanding the condition of our waterbodies, we first have to consider the many paths water takes to reach them. As water interacts with the ground’s surface it moves downwards toward a body of water. During its trip, water will carry any components it gathers along the way including nutrients, sediment, bacteria and pollutants.

These are then deposited downstream in lakes, rivers and wetlands. The areas in which this water originates, flows through and eventually deposits, are known as watersheds. All of the water within a watershed will flow to the same place.


Video is courtesy of Caring for Our Watersheds.


Kansas is part of two major watersheds: the Missouri and the Arkansas. These represent large areas of land that ultimately drain to a common point downstream.  Each can be broken down into smaller sub-basins, which drain into areas within the larger watershed.

The strategy for water quality improvement in Kansas involves collaborative partnership among federal, state and local agencies, as well as local landowners and other key stakeholders.

The Kansas Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (KS WRAPS) has a prominent role in the development of Watershed Plans, or comprehensive strategies for addressing impaired waters in Kansas. Through WRAPS, KDHE’s Watershed Management Section administers Clean Water Act funding, along with State Water Plan funding to support projects implementing watershed plans throughout the state.


The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as part of the USDA, helps protect the Nation’s water from contamination by agricultural chemicals and waste products through its Water Quality Program. This program involves water-quality demonstration projects; educational, technical and financial assistance; and database development and evaluation.


The Kansas Department of Agriculture Division of Conservation develops guidelines and assistance programs to help local governments and individuals minimize source pollution entering the state’s waters, improve riparian and stream habitat and reduce soil erosion.


The Water Underground

Groundwater is water that soaks into the soil from rain or other precipitation, then moves downward to fill cracks, pores, and fractures in sand, gravel, and other rock, much the same way that water fills a sponge. Like surface water, groundwater can be impacted by natural and human-caused influences occurring in the watershed.

Think of groundwater as if you were to dig a hole straight down. You would pass through layers of dirt, soil and bedrock. But below these layers, you would reach what’s called the zone of saturation or saturated zone. The top of the saturated zone is known as the water table, where you first encounter groundwater. This collection of water is called an aquifer.

As part of the water cycle, groundwater may become surface water. Anywhere groundwater manages to flow out to the surface is called a spring. But surface water may also seep down into the earth and become groundwater.

In the United States, there is as much as 30 times more groundwater beneath our feet than in all of the rivers, streams and lakes we think of when we refer to surface water.



Surface Water

Surface water is the term used to describe any body of water located above ground. When we talk about rivers, oceans, lakes and streams, we are talking about surface water. As part of the water cycle, surface water may seep into the ground and become groundwater. Precipitation such as rain and snow refills much of our surface water. However, groundwater can also reach the surface and feed into, or become, rivers, lakes or streams.

Surface water is an important part of various habitats such as wetlands. There, surface water is vital to the lives of aquatic plants and wildlife such as fish, and the birds and other animals that eat them.

All lakes, rivers and wetlands in Kansas have designated uses, which are identified in the Kansas Surface Water Quality Standards. These are set by the State of Kansas and represent the goals and expectations for how each waterbody is used. These include the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish and wildlife; recreation; drinking water; and agricultural and industrial uses.

One major issue with Kansas waterbodies is the presence of Harmful Algal Blooms or HABs. HABs are directly related to excessive nutrient loading from agricultural fields into waterbodies. Blooms are unpredictable and can develop rapidly and move across a waterbody due to wind or current.

If the waterbody appears scummy or foamy or has a thick mat of growth, it can be an indication that there is a HAB present. Another indicator is the presence of cyanobacteria which changes the water’s color to pea-green, blue or blue-green. These blooms may resemble a vivid paint spill or floating grass clippings.

At times, blue-green algae can reproduce very rapidly. Some strains produce toxins, which can be released when they become stressed or die. Some other types of algae can also produce harmful blooms such as the famous “red tides,” produced by overgrowth of red algae.

Per state and federal regulations public hearings are conducted at least once every three years. Here, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reviews the surface water quality standards and may adopt new or updated standards.



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