The top environmental and health official in the administration of Gov. Laura Kelly said understandable public attention on sustaining sufficient quantities of water in the agriculture-heavy state led to lack of focus on the quality of drinking water.
"One of the things that gets all the attention is water quantity, but I think we can't turn a blind eye to water quality," said Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. "We don't want a Flint, Michigan, in Kansas."
He said a reminder of the challenge was provided by exceptionally heavy rainfall triggering an equipment failure at the City of Lawrence's wastewater treatment plant along the Kansas River. Shutting down the plant required wastewater to be diverted into the river, which had potential health consequences for municipalities down stream.
"What happens to sewage and runoff in storms? The nutrients, if you think about it, is also waste," he said.
Norman, who has been KDHE secretary since January, has served as a family physician, military medical officer and as a hospital system executive. He told The Topeka Capital-Journal in a meeting with the editorial advisory board his priorities during the next several years would be to improve quality of city drinking water and raise awareness of risks faced by rural Kansans supplied by private wells.
He committed to completion of a study of consequences of spring burning of Flint Hills pasture and to expansion of the scope of newborn screening. He planned to build the case that KDHE's laboratory at Forbes Field in Topeka ought to be replaced.
The secretary said quality laboratory work was being performed by KDHE personnel, but the building was operationally inefficient and a detriment to recruiting scientists to the agency. An evaluation of KDHE's lab requirements has been initiated to determine the potential cost of the project, but the secretary speculated it could approach $50 million.
The laboratory project will have to compete with other state priorities and depend on availability of state tax dollars, he said.
"Our laboratory looks like something out of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.' It's from the 1950s," Norman said. "It was an Air Force hospital back in the day. If you can image setting up a laboratory in a prison, that's kind of what it feels like."
He said KDHE was collaborating with other state agencies on a two-year program to collect new data in areas adjacent to the Arkansas River and along surface irrigation canals in Hamilton, Kearny, Finney, Gray and Ford counties.
In addition, the project includes an offer for free testing of drinking water drawn from domestic wells in the region. Water sample kits will be first distributed in Hamilton County starting Aug. 19. Kits are to be issued in sequence to well owners in Kearny, Finney, Gray and Ford counties.
Results from as many as 2,500 private wells in the southwest Kansas counties will be provided to well owners who volunteer for the study and the information will be compiled into the study of overall regional groundwater quality, he said.
"This will be something to watch," the secretary said. "It's going to cause problems. The reason is because some of the standards are not going to be met for drinking water."
Norman said problems known to exist in water supplies in western Kansas included nitrates, phosphorus and uranium. Reverse osmosis units can be affixed to well-water supply lines to address some contaminants, he said.
He also said prescribed burning of grazing pastures in the spring was worthy of study because smoke exacerbated smog compliance issues in Nebraska and elsewhere in terms of limits imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.