Chasing the Channel – Blog No. 7

Why are there so many tires in the Kansas River?

Unearthing tires from a Kansas River sandbar
Photo by: Dawn Buehler

Last weekend, Friends of the Kaw and our partners and friends removed almost 400 tires that were embedded in a Kansas River sandbar. How did we do that? One at a time, with a shovel and many volunteers and partners.

It was exhausting, I’m not going to sugar coat it. We dug each tire out of the sand, mud and water. They were heavy. Each tire full of sand on the inside and often sitting in a pool of water. Some of the tires were semi-tractor size and others were car size, but imagine a semi-tire full of sand! So heavy, often taking three people to get them loose. Our motto is “one at a time”. Every tire off the river is one less in the river, so we unearthed them one at a time.

The question though, that we got asked more than any other, was how did they get there? Sure, there are modern day polluters that we are unfortunately still dealing with, but most of the tires on the Kansas River have been there for decades. If you are old enough to remember, pre-1960, our rural areas had no trash system. Even many urban areas did not have adequate refuse systems until around 1960. We find many old dump sites along the river from this time period. The tires, though, were used as bank stabilization. At the time, it was believed to help stabilize the bank and keep the Kansas River from eroding the farmland. However, we now know that doesn’t work. Not only do they not stabilize the banks, but tires don’t break down, they don’t go away, and they can leach chemicals into the water.

Dawn Buehler, Kansas Riverkeeper, with tires from a Kansas River sandbar.
Photo by: Dawn Buehler

My dad, a Kansas farmer, passed away in 2015 shortly after I started as your Kansas Riverkeeper. I grew up in the Kansas River valley and spent my childhood fishing, camping and boating in the Kansas River. Right before he died, he took me for a drive through the bottoms where I grew up and told me stories about the 1951 flood and about his lessons from the river. One of the things he told me was about a tire salesman from Kansas City that would come out to farmers and give them tires for free to use to stabilize the banks of their farmland. My dad said that this is one of the ways that we ended up with so many tires along the Kaw. I committed that day, that I would use my job and contacts to the best that I could to get the big sites off the river. We’ve made a dent, but we have more to do. We have more sites on our list – from just before Bonner Springs, Tire Island between Eudora and DeSoto, a site before St. George, and again around Tecumseh. And that’s not all, it’s just the sites at the top of my mind. Want to join us? We’d love your help, but in the meantime, do us a favor and take a single tire off the river next time you are out. One at a time, my friends…one at a time..

We owe a gracious thank you to the many that helped with the Eudora tire cleanup. Join us in thanking REI, Evergy Green Team, City of Eudora, Kansas Dept. of Wildlife Parks & Tourism, Kansas Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Big O Tires….and a very special thank you to our Kaw River Guides, and boat captains Sam, Nick and Dennis. It takes us all!

Until next time, may you always have sand in your shoes.

For the river,

Dawn, Your Kansas Riverkeeper

Chasing the Channel – Blog No. 6

Challenges of a non-profit….

Old Battery Cases in the Kansas River near Manhattan
Photo by: Dawn Buehler

Last Saturday, I headed west towards Manhattan in the early morning darkness.  We had planned a Kaw River Guide trash and camp weekend complete with many partners and friends.  As I headed down I-70, it was easy to get lost in the early morning sunrise with thoughts of how the day would go and that we would truly make another dent in the trash that had accumulated in the Kansas River with decades worth of illegal dumping. 

My grand thoughts were soon interrupted by the sound of our trusty pick up showing signs of stress.  Luckily, I made it to Manhattan, but had to leave the truck in town for repairs.  As a non-profit, ever dollar matters and the thing I dislike spending our money on is repairs, but we can’t do our work without that truck.  Well, $1,500 later, and we will have the truck back tomorrow.  My work before coming to Friends of the Kaw was as an accountant for well over a decade with an environmental consulting firm before switching to my science-based career.  Working for a for-profit business is so vastly different than a non-profit.  Everyone wants their donation to go to something grand like pulling trash out of the river or educating the next generation – and believe me when I say that most of the donations go to that.  However, there are things like paying personnel, fixing trucks, buying laptops and things that don’t seem quite as exciting, but are essential in order to make it to the place to clean up the trash and educate the next generation.  As the only non-profit dedicated to protecting the Kansas River, we pride ourselves on being a non-governmental public advocate.  But that comes with the fundraising side too – which is funding our work through memberships, donations and fundraisers.  It gives us the freedom to advocate, bust polluters and represent YOU – because our funding comes from the people.  So, to everyone that gives in some way to Friends of the Kaw – thank you!  Thank you for seeing the value of the work we do and the value of your donation – even if it goes towards a $1,500 repair to our only piece of road transportation.  I’ll thank you in advance now (and later) for purchasing a $25 ticket to the Beers of the Kaw Ale Trail – not just for the beer experience (although that’s pretty awesome), but also to help us pay for all of the things that you don’t see so that we can do the things that you do see.

Beers of the Kaw Ale Trail tickets will go on sale October 26, 2020.  We are finalizing the details and some of your favorite brewers are going to make this a great event!  We also have a Silent Auction with items that will make great holiday gifts, so watch for more information in the coming weeks.

Drone footage of tire sandbar at Eudora
Photo by: Lisa Grossman

In the meantime, we are headed out to the river tomorrow to begin the process of unearthing “about” 385 tires embedded in a Kansas River sandbar near Eudora.  Then on Saturday, we will continue to pull the tires out and shuttle them to shore at the Eudora Boat Ramp.  Thanks to great partners in REI, Evergy Green Team, Big O Tires, City of Eudora, Kansas Dept. of Wildlife Parks & Tourism, our amazing Kaw River Guides, and a couple of local fisherfolk with boats – we will get it done!  One cleanup at a time – my grand wish is to leave the Kaw cleaner and healthier when I retire – ready for the next generation.

May you always have sand in your shoes…

For the river,

Dawn, Your Kansas Riverkeeper

Chasing the Channel – Blog No. 5

Advocacy…at the heart of what we do.

Fall is a spectacular time on the Kaw. If you’ve experienced it, you know what I’m talking about. This is also an incredibly busy time of the year for us at Friends of the Kaw, but who am I kidding, it is busy all year long. The river never takes a break from needing to be protected. That said, the fall is a great time to help people connect to the Kansas River and we have had a busy month doing just that.

Eudora Community Paddle on the Kaw
Photo by Dawn Buehler

We normally have wait lists for our events, but this year has been unlike any other. I think with the pressures of the COVID pandemic, people are looking for ways to spend their time outdoors and find new ways to explore. We held a Pop-Up Paddle, two Beginner’s Paddle Events and a Community Paddle at Eudora in the last month and every one of them had a wait list. One of them had 95 people on the wait list…let me say that again, 95 people. I think this speaks not to necessarily the popularity of Friends of the Kaw, but more to the place we are in as a world in the middle of a pandemic. We all need connection – with each other and with nature – and paddling on a river is one way to do that! We have a few more events coming up this fall and we hope you can join us and experience the beauty of Kansas only seen from the Kansas River.

Kansas River sandbar art.
Photo by Dawn Buehler

I’ve been busy with my many advocacy related activities and boards where I represent the Kansas River in my role as Kansas Riverkeeper. I am on the Stakeholder Leadership Team for the Lower Kansas WRAPS (Water Restoration and Protection Strategy) and I’m happy to report that the group is gaining ground on delisting Stranger Creek for bacteria. We aren’t there yet, but this group is making great progress with cover crops and alternate watering systems to keep cattle out of the waterways. You can learn more about this work from our friends at Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams here: https://kaws.org/ourwork/watersheds/lkr/.

I also Chair the Kansas Regional Advisory Committee for the Kansas Water Vision. We recently updated our goals and action plans for the Kansas River basin and presented them to the Kansas Water Authority. I have worked on this committee for 5 years and it is by far some of the most impactful work that I do in terms of finding ways to protect our water quality and quantity. I will write more about our work on this committee in the new year but for now you can read up on the state’s Water Vision here: https://kwo.ks.gov/water-vision-water-plan/water-vision.

What a full month of advocacy! Another project where we represent the river is on the Sustainable Rivers Program. This is a partnership between The Nature Conservancy and the Corps of Engineers to reoperate Corps dams to find more ecological flows while still meeting downstream needs. We had a two day online call to do a workshop on this program. I am happy to say that this program has the greatest opportunity to have long term benefits to the Kansas River ecosystem! You can learn more about this program here: https://www.nature.org/en-us/what-we-do/our-priorities/protect-water-and-land/land-and-water-stories/sustainable-rivers-project/. Friends of the Kaw is on the Steering Committee for this program and proud to be a part of it!

Sandbars are back on the Kansas River!
Photo by Dawn Buehler

On top of all of those advocacy activities this month, we still find violations on the Kansas River. I have numerous violations that are being reported – from new dump sites to dredge cables that are left up, to discharges that look suspicious. Join us in keeping an eye on the river and if you see anything suspicious, you can report it directly to Kansas Department of Health and Environment, but please also contact us so that we can keep the pressure on to get it cleaned up. You can email riverkeeper@kansasriver.org. We are all in this together!

As always, if we can help you connect to the Kansas River, you know where to find us. Email, call, social media – or simply find us on the river. We are always happy to help.

May you always have sand in your shoes….

For the river,
Dawn, Your Kansas Riverkeeper

Chasing the Channel – Blog No. 4

Somebody has to do it….

These last couple of weeks have felt less like a sweltering Kansas August and more like the onset of fall. I don’t let it fool me…I’ve lived in Kansas my whole life and know well enough that we are not done with 90 degree days! I am a child of summer, so I’m always hoping for summer to hang on a little while longer. Every season holds something special here in Kansas…because we truly get 4 seasons. For me, the best season on the Kaw is fall. Oh, beautiful fall! There is something quite spectacular about starting the day with a light jacket as you slowly push off onto the cool air of the river. By mid morning, you are taking layers off and feeling the warmth of the sun. But the evening….the evening is where the Kaw showcases the magic. A Kansas River sandbar on a cool evening with a campfire, friends, stories and then a peaceful rest in the coolness of the river’s edge. Those are the days of magic, friends.

Last weekend, the river finally dropped as the Corps of Engineers dropped the outflows at Milford as it got closer to conservation pool. Those of us that are on the Kaw regularly know where all of the big trash resides and we know that it is our duty to get it off the river. So with a team of our Kaw River Guides, we made a last minute decision to get on the river at Ogden and go after a few big ticket items that we’ve been eager to get off of our beautiful river. So off we went…with chainsaws, contractor trash bags, gloves, and a lot of determination.

Shoveling mud at the Ogden Boat Ramp

Our first job of the day was to shovel the Ogden Boat Ramp – by hand! The river has dropped, so often the communities have not had a chance to clean it. We try to always carry a shovel for this reason and thankfully we had one and blazed a path through the deep and thick muck. We shoved off with plans to get a hot tub just downstream of the Ogden ramp and we were hoping it was still there. And…yes, it was. And it was encased in mud and even had grass growing around it. We found an eddy on the backside to steady our boats and went to work with a chainsaw. We were able to remove about half of the hot tub and the rest will have to wait until the river drops significantly, but we will be back for it! We had made last minute arrangements with a Game Warden that we’ve worked with before to come and help us get all of the trash off the river, so we stacked all of the debris on a sandbar to wait for our return the next day.

Empty septic tank on an island in the river.

We headed on to our sandbar for our overnight stay, with plans to get what we really coveted to get off the river – a septic tank that has been on an island for the better part of 2 years. When we arrived at our sandbar for the night, there we found a water heater and some tire rims, so all of us together used our tie down straps to make a sling so that we could carry the water heater to the water’s edge and make sure it would be easy for the Game Warden to retrieve.

More items found on our sandbar for the night!

We enjoyed one of those spectacular Kaw evenings on the sandbar. We had a fire, friendship, and we laughed at stories from the KAW 173. One of our many jokes is that if there is a chance that rain will find us, it will! And we could not believe that with a zero percent chance of rain, we woke at 6:00 AM to the sound of thunder! Ahh….we are so use to it, that we got up and made coffee and then hunkered back down in our tents to let it pass. We had big plans ahead for the septic tank but we were in no hurry. We were getting that septic tank!

Kaw sandbar fire!

We shoved off later that morning and we only had about a mile to go to reach the island with the septic tank. We knew the island was a very muddy spot and did not have a lot of sand and it had just rained, so this was going to be a mess. It is amazing what you get use to when you spend a lot of time in rivers.

Thank you to Game Warden Gehrt with Kansas Dept. of Wildlife Parks & Tourism for transporting all of our trash off the river!

The septic tank was there, perched high above the island and surrounded mostly by driftwood. With our handy chainsaw and some skilled Kaw River Guides, we dismantled the septic tank into pieces and stacked it up for the Game Warden’s arrival. Not long after finishing our work, Game Warden Gehrt with Kansas Dept. of Wildlife Parks & Tourism arrived! We loaded all of the plastic from the septic tank and also loaded two of our Kaw River Guides to go along and help with unloading and then also loading the rest of our trash haul. Everything was transported to the Fairmont Park boat ramp in Manhattan and the next day it was taken to the landfill by the Riley Co. Parks Department! Talk about teamwork…that’s how things get done!

Our trash haul at the Fairmont Park boat ramp in Manhattan. The next day, Riley Co. Parks & Recreation came and took it all to the landfill, thank you so much!

Friends of the Kaw has been the only non-profit dedicated to cleaning up the Kaw for almost three decades. I am proud to carry on the work of those before me. What makes this all happen though, is a team of dedicated volunteers and partners all up and down the river. We can all cleanup up the Kaw together – one cleanup day at a time. Somebody has to do it, why not us?

Anyone can join us a Kaw River Guide if you have your own boat and gear, just reach out and get involved. Even if you don’t have a boat, but want to join us, we have bank cleanups too. It doesn’t matter if you can give one hour, or every weekend…we are grateful for any gift of your time. Contact me and I will be happy to get you included in our communications.

I hope that I say enough how grateful I am to our volunteers and partners – you all know that we could not do all that we do without them, right? What a great group of people we have that are committed to this journey with us. Every day I get up and love my job…but these folks make it so much easier!

The Kaw is looking spectacular this weekend…the river is dropping and the sandbars are emerging. The weather looks perfect! Let me know if I can help you connect to the Kansas River . Call or email with questions about flows, ramps, sections, camping – whatever it is, we want to help you find your own adventure on the Kaw! PS…don’t forget your lifejacket!

May you always have sand in your shoes…

For the river,

Dawn, Your Kansas Riverkeeper