Cover photo: The Blue River near Holmes Rd. Photo by Jill Draper
The Blue River gets a report card
By Jill Draper
The Blue River got its first report card recently, and the results are not great. This 40-mile-long waterway, which flows from the Overland Park Arboretum north to the Missouri River, earned an overall score of C-, with grades of D and F for native habitat, community awareness and government collaboration.
That’s according to the Heartland Conservation Alliance and the Nature Conversancy of Kansas, two nonprofits which funded the study to raise awareness and start a conversation among cities within the watershed.
Adison Banks, land trust coordinator at the Heartland Conservation Alliance, describes the Blue River as Kansas City’s backyard waterway and “kind of a hidden gem.” Not a lot of people know about it, he says.
Both the upper and middle sections of the river run through south Kansas City, from State Line Road near 150 Highway to just west of Jerry Smith Park to Minor Park. It then runs through the middle of Swope Park before entering the Missouri River east of Berkley Riverfront Park.
There’s no grade in the report card for water quality, because cities have not agreed on which data they should be collecting. That’s a problem, Banks says. “What we really need are shared metrics to give us a better idea of whether our development is harming water quality.”
He suspects the water quality varies and probably suffers from urban pollutants like car oil, salt, pesticides and fertilizer. “It’s not advisable to eat fish from the river.”
Banks was part of a group that presented the report card at Climate Action KC: Resilience in Action, a meeting on December 17 hosted by MARC (Mid-America Regional Council). The next step is to talk with the 20 cities in the Blue River watershed about “what we can all do to make the river better.”
The watershed is 270 square miles of land that drains into the river. It ranges from Stillwell, Kansas, north to Independence, and from Olathe east to Raytown and Grandview.
According to Banks, one of the most surprising things about the report is how little tree canopy exists in the upper watershed where the river runs through farmland and new subdivisions in Johnson County. Trees are important because they capture stormwater and help prevent flooding downstream.
“We’d like to see development move a little farther away from the river,” he says, noting this not only would protect houses and other buildings during heavy rainfall, but also increase their value by providing expanded nearby greenspace.
The Heartland Conservation Alliance researched and wrote the report with some 20 partners, including the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences, which first introduced the idea of a report card for charting the progress of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.
“We don’t have an iconic fish or crabs to measure,” says Banks, but he identifies several accomplishments in the south KC area.
- KC Water built a wetland pond to filter stormwater at 81st Street and Troost, and the alliance added native plants around the walking path.
- His group also partnered with Jackson County and the Missouri Department of Conservation to plant native trees and flowers at Alex George Lake as it evolves into a wetland. The lake flows into the Blue River at Minor Park.
- They helped clear invasive species like bush honeysuckle at Jerry Smith Park and Blue River Park, which includes a boat ramp near Holmes Road and Blue Ridge Boulevard.
- They support the efforts of the all-volunteer Urban Trail Co., which has built dirt paths for mountain bikers, trail runners and hikers along much of the middle Blue River’s east side.
“It would be amazing to have a paved greenway along the entire length of the river with easier access,” Banks says, adding that vision is part of the MetroGreen Plan, a system of nature areas, greenways and trails throughout the Kansas City area.
The next report card will come out in 2021, and Banks hopes to see more riparian cover along the river as well as cities and nonprofits committing to regional plans that go beyond any one city’s boundaries. For the full report see heartlandconservationalliance.org/blue-river-report-card.