But come summer, when the sun blasts the humid air up into the triple digits, this patch of dirt and pavement will lose popularity.
Anthony and some of his young neighbors will flock to one of Rosedale's few natural resources: Turkey Creek, a ribbon of rocks and ripples that flanks the neighborhood's edge. Anthony has been down to the creek's craggy banks a couple of times since his family moved here a few months ago. He mucked around the banks on his bike, lobbed rocks into the gentle current. "My friends go swimming there in the summer," he says, anticipating the day he'll join them, once school's out. "Probably everybody in the neighborhood swims down there."
When Anthony and his buddies strip down and jump into one of the deep spots, they'll be dunking their heads and scuffed knees into effluent from a sewage plant: More than 90 percent of the water flowing through Wyandotte County's stretch of Turkey Creek flows from hundreds of thousands of drains and toilets in the wealthier Johnson County.
Hearing this, Anthony scrunches his face in disgust and revises his summer plans: "I don't want to go swimming there."
Johnson County is required by federal and state laws to disinfect and treat its wastewater before pumping it back into the environment. But examining the track record of this particular wastewater facility, the Pitch found ample evidence to suggest that Anthony's sudden change of plans is probably wise.
John Metzler kneels near the edge of Turkey Creek and slips a hand into the dark, green water. "Be my guest," he says. "Take a dip." Several dozen yards upstream, a steady blast of wastewater pummels the creek, kicking up piles of dirty foam. All of it -- 15 million gallons per day -- is from the Nelson Complex, a sewage-treatment facility that serves some 130,000 residents in Mission, Merriam, Shawnee and Overland Park. It consists of two sewage plants, one built in 1947, the other in 1960. They both operate virtually within spitting distance of the Wyandotte County line and pour their waste out a single pipe.
As Johnson County's chief wastewater engineer, Metzler helps oversee operations at the plant. He casually rubs the creek water from his hand and acknowledges that virtually every drop comes from his plant -- "We're probably 90 percent of the stream most of the time" -- but he vouches for its cleanliness: "Basically what we pump out is a clean stream."
Yet he knows some doubt his claim; the Nelson Complex has been operating under a permit that expired ten years ago.
The permit is essentially a license to pollute within certain limits set by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. It and other state agencies are delegated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Water Act, which Congress first passed in 1972.
Since the Nelson Complex's permit expired, state and federal water-quality standards have been amended several times in an ongoing effort to protect the environment. But until its permit is renewed, the Nelson Complex remains beholden only to the older, weaker laws.
"Frankly, it looks bad," Metzler concedes. But, he adds, that doesn't mean the situation actually is bad. During the past ten years, he says, Johnson County has spent millions to upgrade its facilities and improve the quality of the effluent it exports to Wyandotte County, where the per capita income is about half of Johnson County's. The enhancements include a new ultraviolet disinfecting system, which will zap bacteria just as effectively as chlorine without harming aquatic life, as the chemical does.
But area environmentalists are skeptical. That's because almost seven years ago the EPA formally objected to a permit Kansas regulators drafted for the Nelson Complex -- a "highly unusual" bureaucratic move, according to Charles Benjamin, a Lawrence-based lawyer who works on behalf of the Sierra Club. In the nearly thirty years Kansas has been authorized to issue and oversee permits, this is the only one in Kansas the EPA has officially rejected. "That says to me that something has been going on with this permit," Benjamin says. "Kansas must not have been doing a good job of enforcing the Clean Water Act at the Nelson Complex."
Federal officials confirm his assessment. "EPA believes that the permit as proposed ... wasn't protective enough for the waters of Kansas," says Mary Mindrup, manager of the permitting program for the EPA's Region VII, which covers Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa.
The EPA's objection centers on one issue: "acute whole effluent toxicity," or WET, which is the measure of effluent's danger to living things. WET is determined in a simple, straightforward way: living creatures -- specifically minnows and water fleas -- are exposed to various concentrations of the effluent. If they die, the effluent is acutely toxic.
What the EPA was hoping to find in Johnson County's renewed and revised permit was an actual limit on WET; meaning that if minnows and water fleas die in liquid that's more than 50 percent effluent from the plant, the plant will be in violation of the law. All the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has proposed is a requirement to test for WET. Such a permit would allow Johnson County to dump waste that's toxic to these fleas and minnows (and, presumably, other forms of aquatic life) into the creek without fear of receiving a violation notice and possibly a fine.
Had Kansas set a toxicity limit at the time the permit expired, however, Johnson County likely would have been in trouble several times. Each year from 1990 until 1995, at least some of the test minnows and water fleas died in the effluent. Two tests have taken place since then -- in 1997 and 1999 -- and the effluent was found to be chronically toxic, meaning that the animals survived but their growth was stunted.
And that's one main reason the renewal has been delayed so long: Johnson County has fought the tougher limits.
"We have sort of an implied trust with our customers," Metzler says, "that we will comply with EPA regulations but not spend a lot of hard-earned tax money to go beyond EPA regulations."
Numerous memos, meeting transcripts and phone records stashed in the Nelson Complex's files reveal that KDHE and EPA actions have been weighted with an awareness that Johnson County would object to a permit with toxicity limits. The county's objection: Turkey Creek isn't much of a creek at all, so there's no need to protect minnows. According to a formal letter Metzler wrote to KDHE officials in June 1994, Turkey Creek "in some places functions essentially as a storm sewer."
This objection led to an extensive study of Turkey Creek, delaying the permit until 1997. Since then it has been held up by the slow-moving bureacracy of the Environmental Protection Agency. (Johnson County has complained several times to state and federal officials about the delays.) The EPA delegates responsibilities for permits to such state agencies as KDHE, but, state and federal officials say, the Kansas agency isn't keeping up with its duties. "It has taken us longer than we would have liked," Mindrup says.
Right around the time Metzler was arguing that the creek was a storm sewer, Johnson County parks and recreation officials began devoting hundreds of thousands of dollars to convert their segment of the waterway into the Turkey Creek Streamway Park.
It took the vision and determination of longtime Merriam political player Irene French to get the project started. As mayor, she sought to enhance the quality of life in her community, and right in the middle of town she found the makings of a natural treasure: Turkey Creek, all hidden and full of potential in a long row of trees. "I thought, 'Oh my gracious, this is going to be absolutely beautiful,'" she recalls.
The county agreed and offered to pay for the renovations and maintenance if Merriam would buy the land. In all, the county invested more than a quarter of a million dollars. And it's still building. According to Bill Maasen, land acquisition specialist for the county parks department, the hope is to one day extend the Streamway Park system to the Wyandotte County border so it could connect to a future network of metro area greenbelts.
So far the city and county have beautified the creek almost the entire length of Merriam. French, who has been in Merriam politics for thirty years (twenty as mayor), says the Turkey Creek greenbelt project ranks "right up there at the top" of her accomplishments. "It is a part of Merriam's character because we've had Turkey Creek forever," she says. "It's part of our heritage."
Dave Murphy can attest to that. He grew up in northeast Johnson County and spent many a day in and around Turkey Creek.
Standing on the creek bank in Merriam, Murphy gently lifts a rock. A crawdad skitters out past his reach. "The trick is to get behind them, and they'll swim right into your hand," he says. The sight brings back memories. He once caught a catfish in a bucket and took it home to keep in his tub as a pet. He recalls drinking from the stream on occasion, something his parents sternly warned him not to do. "When you're a kid, you don't listen," he says. "I saw Daniel Boone doing it on TV, so I was gonna do it too."
He hops in his truck and drives north of the county line, into Kansas City, Kansas, where his mood noticeably shifts. He goes into working mode, carrying out the tasks of his new job as river keeper for the Friends of the Kaw, an environmentalist watchdog group. He spends time in and around the Kansas River and its tributaries, looking for sources of contamination. Under the Roe Street bridge, there's plenty to see and smell. As the water flows over a ridge of rocks, islands of foam form and slowly dissipate as they float downstream. The humid springtime air bears a faint scent reminiscent of portable toilets.
Murphy steps to the edge, turns over a rock and examines what lies beneath. "There's nothing on the bottom of these rocks," he says. "Nothing's growing here."
His eyes scan the high banks where rows of houses sit. Small bicycles are tucked into some of the backyards. Murphy imagines what childhood is like here, where a kid is five times more likely to live in poverty than a Johnson County child is. "I just think how sick I would be in my heart," he says, "if the place where I played when I was a kid, if someone was dumping sewage in, it would have ruined it for me. It would have changed my life."
If John Metzler heard that comment, he likely would say it's flat untrue: Johnson County is not dumping sewage into Wyandotte County. He would hold up the monitoring reports he sends every month to regulators at KDHE. With just a couple of exceptions, the Nelson Complex has operated in compliance with all the rules. Sure, they're old rules, but with regard to the contaminants that could make people sick (as opposed to the generalized "whole effluent toxicity" -- which is geared more toward marine life), Johnson County's outdated permit is just as stringent as any new permit would be.
When it comes to sewage, an important measuring stick is the fecal coliform population. These bacteria live in human and animal waste. If tests reveal more than 200 units of fecal coliform in 100 milliliters of water, the water is unsafe for swimming; if there are more than 2,000, it's unsafe for wading, boating or fishing. (Fecal coliform aren't the only indicators of contamination. Water could contain other germs -- such as E. coli -- that would not register on a fecal coliform reading.)
Johnson County Waste Water's self-reported monitoring data reveals that most of the time, the Nelson Complex pumps out wastewater with fecal coliform counts of less than 200. But every once in a while, it comes out thicker -- sometimes a lot thicker. There have been times when samples of Johnson County's effluent registered fecal coliform readings of greater than 6,000 -- more than thirty times what is safe.
Even so, the facility still operates within the confines of clean water regulations. To determine the cleanliness of the effluent that makes up more than 90 percent of Turkey Creek in Wyandotte County, state regulators crunch test results into a geometric mean, which is like an average except it's a little lower because the highest and lowest readings are tweaked to give licensed polluters, such as Johnson County, some flexibility -- a little room to run dirty water down the stream now and then.
Metzler says there's no harm in that. "I think short-term peaks are not a significant health threat," he says. Asked whether his effluent is safe to swim in, he says, "Absolutely. I didn't go down there and put my hand in the water and sniff it because I thought it was unsafe."
But Terry Schistar, an adjunct professor in the environmental studies program at the University of Kansas, doesn't agree that the geometric mean is an adequate gauge of public health hazards. "What counts is how high the levels are at the time people are actually in the water," she says. "If it's bad when people are in it, that's when you're going to get sick."
So how often has the Nelson Complex's effluent been unsafe for swimming? That's impossible to say precisely. Fecal coliform population counts are variable. According to one KDHE engineer, a single sample tested by three lab technicians could yield three results. But in cases when numbers are high -- greater than 6,000, for example -- one can be fairly certain that the effluent is not safe to swim in.
Yet in analyzing all of the Nelson Complex's effluent monitoring data from 1998 through the end of 2000, the Pitch found that 16 percent of the tests for fecal coliform revealed counts above what was safe for swimming. And 60 percent of those spikes occurred between June and September -- during prime swimming season.
In some cases, the fecal coliform counts were extremely high. Six percent of the readings -- 22 out of 354 -- showed levels that were unsafe even for boating. And of those, ten were reported as "greater than 6,000" units per 100 milliliters. (The Nelson Complex's test instruments all max out at 6,000 -- a deficiency that one EPA inspector decried in a 1999 report because it throws off the geometric mean.)
On average, Johnson County tests the effluent for fecal coliform a little more often than two times per week. Yet the county dumps effluent continuously -- 15 million gallons per day, 105 million gallons per week. This sea of untested wastewater makes Schistar suspicious. She believes it creates many opportunities to dilute the numbers. Her students recently examined test results from the main treatment plant in Topeka, which until recently has had its own problems with dirty effluent, and she "noticed they tend to take samples at certain times of the day," she says, which led her to believe wastewater engineers "can choose a sampling regime that minimizes the likelihood that you're going to get a spike."
Metzler scoffs at this notion, explaining that sampling and testing of Johnson County's effluent is performed outside of the wastewater department -- by an "outside watchdog," as he puts it, who is an employee of the county's environmental department. Samples for fecal coliform are taken by a lab director in that department between 7:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. on two weekdays each week. "As a practical matter," says Metzler, "it is virtually impossible to turn on and off treatment processes for such a large facility in order to affect one parameter."
Yet this doesn't take into account those times the Nelson Complex takes in more waste than it can handle -- when raw or partially treated sewage overflows right into the creek.
In the mid-'90s, Johnson County earned some bad press when an environmentalist rummaged through some public files and discovered that the county was, on occasion, sending raw and partially treated sewage from other plants into Brush Creek. This happens when the county's treatment and sewer systems overload -- usually during hard rain but sometimes because of a malfunction -- and raw or partially treated sewage overflows into neighboring streams, including Turkey Creek.
To remedy the problem, Johnson County spent $60 million during the late '80s and early '90s on its sewer system. But a water-quality study in 1995, as well as the Pitch's review of a decade of data, indicates that the problem still occurs.
The study by Black & Veatch, an engineering firm, predicted that as much as 260 million gallons of untreated sewage might overflow yearly from Johnson County into Turkey Creek. Black & Veatch compiled a list of 35 overflows from the Turkey Creek holding facility reported by Johnson County to KDHE from 1989 through 1995. For some of these, officials had logged how much wastewater actually went into the creek -- flows ranging from 55,000 to 58 million gallons. On fewer occasions, they sampled the runaway waste and logged fecal coliform counts, which sometimes were frighteningly high: One reading came in at greater than 600,000 units per 100 milliliters.
The study downplayed the filthiness of this overflowing wastewater, pointing to specific events that occurred in the spring and fall of 1995. In each event, the researchers detected higher levels of fecal coliform at monitoring stations above the sewer plant's outfall pipes. This led them to conclude that the plant's overflowing wastewater actually was diluting Turkey Creek -- which, they surmised, was being fouled by all manner of sources, such as pet waste on lawns.
But deep in the report, researchers revealed that Johnson County sewage was the cause of at least one excessive upstream reading -- a 47,000 count taken on May 16 -- because leaking sewer-system manholes overflowed into the stormwater system and the creek before reaching the sewage plant.
In the years since the Black & Veatch study, there have been 55 reported overflow events at the Nelson Complex's holding tank. Each of those overflows was tested for fecal coliform, and on 33 occasions the wastewater that flowed into the creek was found to have levels above what is safe for swimming; eighteen registered above the safety level even for boating in the creek. A handful of the grab samples showed levels that were extremely high -- some with more than half a million fecal coliform per 100 milliliters (2,500 times what's safe for swimming).
And those numbers don't reflect the mechanical errors that Johnson County officials say rarely occur but still affect the water quality of Turkey Creek. For instance, in April of 1999, an EPA official discovered that the weirs that regulated the fluid levels in the facility's holding tanks were submerged and that partially treated wastewater was overflowing into Turkey Creek. A plant worker told the official that a power outage had resulted in the discharge.
He also found cause for concern in the Nelson Complex's books. In his report he wrote, "Flow data reported on the monthly discharge monitoring reports indicates that the hydraulic capacity of the two plants is frequently exceeded."
Other than during Black & Veatch's water quality study, the only time the actual water in Turkey Creek was tested (as opposed to the twice-weekly tests of the sewage plant's discharges) was in August 1996, when EPA officials conducted a "use attainability analysis." Its purpose was to classify the stream. Under the Clean Water Act, water bodies are sorted into categories based on their potential to support aquatic life and the likelihood that people will have access to them.
The test added several years to the ongoing delay of the Nelson Complex's permit renewal, and today Metzler, Johnson County's chief wastewater engineer, says it's "unclear why it was undertaken."
Yet there's ample evidence that it was because of Johnson County. In June of 1994, Metzler wrote a formal letter to KDHE stating that such a use attainability analysis may determine that Turkey Creek shouldn't be classified as supporting aquatic life "because the creek has been extensively channelized and in some places functions essentially as a storm sewer."
Correspondence in the facility's permit files indicates that neither KDHE nor EPA officials wanted to conduct such a test. Indeed, the 1995 contract between the EPA and KDHE to carry out the permitting program for facilities such as Johnson County's budgeted no money for the in-depth and costly study, so it had to be carried out the next year.
In August 1996, a team led by Gary Welker of the EPA collected samples from three parts of the creek: upstream, midstream and downstream. Workers also took samples from two other Johnson County creeks, Mill and Cedar, for comparison. It found that while Turkey Creek had the potential to be as clean and abundant with life as its neighbors, it wasn't -- especially in the section that runs through Wyandotte County.
Though the report doesn't name a specific culprit, it seems to point a giant arrow of guilt at the Nelson Complex.
At the downstream location in Wyandotte County, the study reported, "Diversity and richness values for fish were all lowest ... [which] indicated that this site is severely degraded relative to other Turkey Creek sites ... suggesting the presence of a point source influence on the aquatic life community."
And the biggest "point source" upstream from the Wyandotte County monitoring site is the Nelson Complex.
The findings were worse for fecal coliform. Upstream, a mere 33.3 per 100 milliliters were found. Midstream there were 66.7. Downstream there were 8,666.7, more than forty times the limit for what's safe to swim in. Here, Welker was slower to blame Johnson County's facility. "The Turkey Creek/Mission Main wastewater treatment plants' effluent discharge is located below the upper two monitoring sites, approximately four kilometers above the downstream site," he wrote. "The effluent is chlorinated prior to discharge. Other sources of fecal contamination could include storm water discharges, sewer bypasses, broken sewer lines or runoff from residential areas."
When Metzler read the report, he cried foul. Nearly a year after the report was released in July 1997, he wrote a report denying that the downstream fecal coliform figure was attributable to his plant. He referred to the facilities' monitoring record, which, when computed as a geometric mean, revealed discharges with fecal coliform counts consistently below 200. With this in mind, he deduced that the high count more than likely came from a contamination source in Wyandotte County -- an explanation he still clings to.
This opinion was supported in part by a pair of memos drafted by Rod Geisler, a water-quality engineer at KDHE, in which he referred to a sewer overflow in Kansas City, Kansas: "It is very possible the EPA site is affected by a [Wyandotte County] discharge!" he wrote.
But Geisler has since shifted from this point of view, and his colleagues likewise doubt Wyandotte County is at fault. "I don't know that Wyandotte County has a [sewer overflow] that dumps into Turkey Creek," says Ed Dillingham, who drafted KDHE's proposed permit for the Nelson Complex.
Yet Metzler's argument can't be dismissed: There's no way to determine the exact source of the high population of fecal coliform detected downstream. Because urban streams are filled with water that runs across the urban landscape, the potential sources for contamination are myriad. KDHE officials say that when they saw the high figure in Wyandotte County, they didn't bother to determine where it came from. "It would have been a wild goose chase," says Karl Mueldener, director of KDHE's Bureau of Water.
In his response to the report, Metzler also fell back on his old argument that Turkey Creek is not -- at least in some places -- a creek. "The basic premise that the three streams are similar is flawed," he wrote, explaining that Turkey Creek was different because it was "highly channelized" and had more road crossings. Today, Metzler says he supports the report's findings. "We did not dispute the uses assigned by EPA as a result of this study," he says. "We stand ready to comply with the permit to achieve those uses. To imply otherwise would be misleading."
Yet as recently as 1999, Johnson County attempted to wriggle through a regulatory loophole that would have allowed it to dump more contamination into the creek. That year, the county conducted a census of fish species in the creek because the plant would be able to put more ammonia in the waterway during winter, if certain species were absent. "Wintertime is when ammonia is most difficult to take out," Metzler explains, adding that it's also when younger, reproducing fish are not in the creek.
"It pisses me off," says Wendy Wilson, executive director of the Rosedale Development Corporation. "Here's this community rich in resources upstream from Wyandotte County, which is poor in resources, and there's an appearance of Johnson County dumping their, um, pollution on us. I'd like to see them clean it up."
So would Megan Pugh and her brother, Joshua. The two Rosedale kids have spent many summer afternoons around Turkey Creek. "I think it's fun," says Megan, who is sixteen. Unlike her brother, she tends to stay out of the water ("It's nasty"), but she likes to watch as her neighbors move rocks around and create waterfalls and swimming holes near the I-35 bridge.
Joshua isn't quite so particular. This twelve-year-old likes to get wet from time to time. "Me and my friends go down there and hunt turtles," he says. At first he's reluctant to admit that he swims in it, saying he never gets into water higher than his knees. But even on a super-hot day? "I guess I've gone in it a couple times," he says.
EPA officials say they weren't aware that kids swam in the Wyandotte County portion of Turkey Creek. "This is news to us, that kids are playing in this creek," says spokesman Martin Kessler. "That concerns us."
The EPA plans to contact Rosedale leaders as part of the agency's Community Based Environmental Protection Program, Kessler says.
At no point during the ten-year battle over Johnson County's permit did a state or federal official spend time in Rosedale asking people whether they swam in the creek.
Now that they know, EPA officials say they likely will rethink their priorities for Turkey Creek. "When you ask the questions about kids swimming in it, that concerns us," says Mindrup, manager of EPA Region VII's permit program. "What can we do? I don't know the answer to that. I think in fairness to Johnson County, in terms of what they are discharging, I think that more than likely they will meet the limits that we would set for them."
But even then, she adds, the threat of high fecal coliform counts likely will remain. One reason is that water regulations allow for occasional spikes. Even if these were eliminated entirely from the Johnson County sewage system's outflows, fecal coliform still would get in the water from other sources that aren't regulated by permits -- anything from dog waste in yards to broken septic tanks to dead animals in gutters.
"It's almost easier for us to handle the fecal coliform coming out of the pipe" at the Nelson Complex, says Mueldener of KDHE. One idea could eliminate Johnson County's contribution to the pollution in Turkey Creek significantly: Pipe it through Wyandotte County to the Kansas River, where there is more water to dilute it. In several letters to state and federal regulators, Metzler mentioned this option. "That still might happen some day," says Mueldener, "but it would be a lot of bucks."
If that were done, Anthony Kimball, Megan and Joshua Pugh and all their neighbors might have a creek that more closely resembles the one Kayla Dearinger plays in near her home in Merriam. "I like to walk in the water and play in the white clay down there," the nine-year-old Johnson County girl says.
Asked if she would feel the same way if a sewage plant were operating upstream, her face crumples into a scowl: "That's gross."
Even her mom, Jill Dearinger, is sickened by the idea. "I would be mad if it was in my area and my kids were playing in it and I didn't know about it," she says.
Asked nearly the same question -- whether Johnson County would have chosen to build a greenbelt along a creek full of sewage plant effluent -- former Merriam mayor French says, "I don't even want to go down that path."