Submitted/Mark Jakubauskas

Jerry DeNoyelles, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, left; and Mark Jakubauskas, associate research professor with the Kansas Biological Survey, guide their boat across a lake, taking depth measurements. The professors are part of a team that studies area water supplies and supplies information that communities and the state can use in future water policy.

Kansas Biological Survey team studies the future of drinking water

Group surveys, helps provide information for community water policy

While most of the boaters zipping around area lakes this summer were doing so for fun, one KU craft was doing so to help answer questions about the future of drinking water supplies for Kansas communities.

The Applied Science and Technology for Reservoir Assessment, or ASTRA, team of the Kansas Biological Survey spent the spring and summer months crisscrossing area reservoirs such as Clinton, Hillsdale and Pomona lakes. Their findings will help answer questions such as how long a community can rely on the reservoirs as reliable drinking water sources, if they need to be dredged and if they can support community growth as well as inform public policy decisions regarding water.

Mark Jakubauskas, associate research professor with the Kansas Biological Survey and leader of the ASTRA team, said 60 percent of Kansas gets its water from reservoirs. But, many of them are silting in, losing capacity and facing problems such as algae blooms that diminish the water’s quality.

“Large or small, there is a lot of concern in Kansas communities about the quality and availability of water,” he said.

The team has been performing “lake bottom surveys” to help address those concerns. In a specially equipped boat, the team sets out across reservoirs on paths predetermined by a global positioning system. Using state of the art equipment, they can take up to 500,000 depth measurements per day.

“We drive our pre-determined paths back and forth on the reservoirs, taking five measurements per second,” Jakubauskas said. “With these measurements we can produce very accurate lake contour maps.”

The maps can show just how much water is in the reservoir and how much capacity has been lost to sedimentation. Lakes filling with sediment is a major concern. Jakubauskas said measurements taken at Mission Lake show it has gone from 1,800 acre feet in capacity to about 1,000 in just a few years. The sedimentation also creates shallow areas in lakes that allow deeper light penetration, which in turn can lead to algae blooms. The blooms can cause odor and taste problems in drinking water.

The problems caused by sedimentation are serious, and the solutions are not simple or cheap. Communities can choose to dredge reservoirs to increase capacity, but such a measure can cost millions of dollars. Mission Lake near Horton will be dredged over the next year at a cost of about $8 million. Horton, a community of about 4,000 will share the cost with the state.

Other options come with downsides as well. Reservoir capacity could be increased, but that carries a risk of damaging nearby property and reducing the lake’s effectiveness at assisting in flood control. Water supplies can be abandoned and new supplies tapped. That is not always a viable option though, and often, new dams are needed for new supplies and the cost of the structures can be prohibitive.

In some cases, demand is outstripping supply. Growing communities need water to supply developments. The ASTRA team provides supply projections for several communities based on its findings of a water supply’s capacity and sedimentation rates. Some areas are in danger of demand potentially outstripping supply within five years, Jakubauskas said, and potential droughts would only increase the problem.

While ASTRA’s research helps inform actions that may need to be taken, they also take measurements to gauge the effectiveness of what’s already been done. The team performs independent checks to see if steps such as dredging are effective and to ensure that state funds spent on such projects are being used effectively.

Jakubauskas said the group’s research not only helps inform local decisions about water supplies, but also helps students gain first hand insight about science and public policy.

“Our work of finding out how much water is in these reservoirs feeds the models we produce, which feed local policy and legislation that affects all Kansans,” Jakubauskas said.

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