Big or small, a Kansas town that depends on lakes or reservoirs for its water supply faces the increasing threat of toxic amounts of blue-green algae making it into the homes of consumers. That hasn’t happened. But preventing it has, or will, come at a cost, sometimes a significant cost.

Braxton Copley, Topeka utilities director, says the capital city is in the planning stages of updating two water treatment plants at a cost of about $20 million to help ensure clean drinking water into the future.

Topeka faces significant challenges since it gets “every last drop” of its water supply from the Kansas River, which is fed by several reservoirs. Two of those, Milford and Perry lakes, have consistently hosted harmful algal blooms. 

Copley praised the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for alerting the city’s water treatment staff when possibly toxic waters are headed their way. So far chlorine treatments have neutralized any algae-based toxins in their system. But it’s not a perfect fix.

“Unfortunately, chlorine leaves byproducts when it encounters (the toxins), and that can leave the water with a foul odor and taste. We can take that out with an ozone treatment,” says Copley. 

WaterOne, Kansas’ largest water provider, completed $35.8 million in ozone-based upgrades to its facilities in 2020. The utility provides water for much of the heavily populated Johnson County area.  

Water officials, such as Copley, say improving treatment with ozone equipment also makes it easier to meet federal water standards in several other categories.

Still, he says he will never be able to totally rule out possible problems.

“I’ll sleep better, but given the extent and frequency of algal blooms at Milford, I know it will always be on my radar screen,” says Copley. “I’m sure we’ll have the best possible protection, but we never know what’s coming around the corner with these kinds of things.”

Norton’s near miss

In 2018, things got dicey enough with Norton’s water supply that the Kansas National Guard was told to prepare to bring truckloads of bottled water to the small town.

It turns out only one load was shipped, and it wasn’t needed. Norton was able to quickly avert a possible drinking water supply disaster with the help of federal and state agencies as well as local residents. 

James Moreau, Norton’s city administrator, says things started when a city employee smelled the telltale stench of cyanobacteria when he entered the plant one morning. It had been piped in from nearby Keith Sebelius Reservoir, which supplies 60% of the town’s water. Luckily the bad water hadn’t progressed far into the system. Norton’s water crew switched to the wells that provide the other 40% of the city’s water. The problem was fixed before demand exceeded the amount of water supplied by the wells.

“The key was the mayor and city commissioners didn’t panic or waste any time,” says Moreau. “They started a water-restriction program that saved us a lot of water until we could get things fixed.” 

Residents were limited to outside water usage apart from peak midday times, and only a few days a week. Many residents and businesses went beyond compliance to save water.

Moreau says communication and cooperation among chemical companies and government agencies was quick and productive. Within a few days, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted the city permission to clean the water with activated carbon to rid the system of problem algae. As well as being efficient at neutralizing the toxins, Moreau says, the treatment fit within the city’s $1.5 million annual budget.

“We don’t have near the budget those larger towns do, but we can do the activated carbon for $25,000 to $30,000 a year,” says Moreau. “That’s a pretty good cost-to-benefit ratio.”

Norton still uses the compound when needed. Meanwhile, the water-use restrictions remain in place.

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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