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Healthy rivers need clean creeks

By DeEtte Huffman
Prairie Writers Circle

(Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- If you were lucky when young, a nearby creek gave a tremendous amount of pleasure. There was wading -- maybe it even had a pool deep enough to swim in -- searching for tadpoles or crawdads, fishing with a homemade rod, or just throwing stones in to watch with fascination as the ripple grew. At moments in the reflections you and the creek became one.

In my childhood, in the middle of summer when it finally got hot in Chautauqua County, N.Y., family including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins would drive to an isolated swimming hole in Hatch Creek not far from the town of Busti to spend a wonderful afternoon with nobody there but us.

Only later did I learn that this little creek emptied into larger Stillwater Creek, the water flowing on to the Cassadaga River, the Allegheny River, the Monongahela River, the Ohio River that joined the Mississippi River, and finally into the Gulf of Mexico.

We adults seem to have forgotten the joy of being near a creek and the beauty of a free-flowing river. Or we have chosen to ignore, in the name of progress, the importance of small streams as feeders of rivers and part of our cultural heritage. We need to teach our children about the greater picture of their own nearby stream so they can develop a sense of awe and respect.

Now many streams like these are threatened. The Bush administration proposes to rewrite Clean Water Act rules to remove protections from thousands of wetlands, small streams, ponds, ditches and other waters. The act has already been softened by an administration that has crafted industry-friendly regulations, weakened and rescinded rules and quietly reduced enforcement of the act's provisions.

Kansas has done no better. Our state has enacted a law that reclassifies many small or intermittent streams to make them exempt from the Clean Water Act. This is especially maddening since overuse strongly contributed to their becoming intermittent in the first place, and all streams, even the intermittent, feed into rivers. We should protect all streams at all times.

The disappearance of Kansas streams since 1961 is striking in maps included in a recent report on the response of stream biological communities to agricultural disturbances. Crop irrigation has been implicated as the primary cause in the loss of historically normal stream flows over much of western Kansas.

Even the once rowdy, unpredictable Arkansas River has been tamed by eliminating a long stretch around Dodge City.

The report, from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Biological Survey at the University of Kansas , also points out that agricultural development and water policies have profoundly altered Kansas stream life. Several native fish and mussels are lost, and many other native aquatic plants and animals are in decline.

When you remember your own childhood creek, think of what it meant to you and your family. We all have landmarks in our lives, such as a town, a school or a creek. They give us a sense of place where we know we belong.

Too many of our creeks have been lost to overuse, pollution, diversion or fill-in. It doesn’t really matter how it happened. What does matter is that it must stop if we are to preserve a culture that includes a brook or a creek.


DeEtte Huffman is founder and past president of the Arkansas River Coalition Inc. She is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle at the Land Institute, Salina , and lives in McPherson.