Friends of the Kaw marks 30 years advocating for the Kansas River
Volunteers used picks, shovels and their bare hands to remove more than 450 old tires last October from a sandbar on the Kansas River near Eudora.
The tires had been placed along the river’s north bank between the 1950s and 1970s in a well-intentioned but unsuccessful effort to prevent erosion, says Dawn Buehler, Kansas Riverkeeper and executive director for the nonprofit group Friends of the Kaw.
The tires were washed away during times of high water, particularly in 1993, and became wedged into the sandbar, she said.
Friends of the Kaw organized volunteers who went to the sandbar last October and dug out the tires.
That group and organizations partnering with it then used boats to transport the tires to shore, where they were taken away for recycling.
Friends of the Kaw plans on Saturday, Oct. 16, to carry out a similar tire removal from a roughly mile-long Kansas River sandbar at Shawnee, in Johnson County, Buehler said.
But first, that group plan to celebrate its 30th anniversary during an event 4-8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18, at Kaw River State Park, 300 S.W. Wanamaker Road.
Proceeds will go to finance the work of Friends of the Kaw, which has a mission of protecting and preserving the Kansas River.
Friends of the Kaw was founded in 1991 by residents of north Lawrence who were mounting what became a successful campaign to convince authorities to deny permits being sought by companies hoping to dredge sand from the Kansas River, according to that organization’s website.
Approval of those permits would have harmed the river and its ecosystem, Buehler said.
Meet Dawn Buehler, Kansas Riverkeeper
Today, Friends of the Kaw serves as an advocate for the Kansas River and works to keep it clean, Buehler said.
The 173-mile river runs from Junction City to Kansas City, Kan.
It provides drinking water for about 800,000 of the state’s 2.9 million residents, including Topeka residents, Buehler said.
She said she grew up along that river on a vegetable farm near DeSoto.
Buehler said her experiences growing up in the 1970s and 1980s included camping on sandbars, fishing and canoeing on the river and watching sunsets from a bridge that passed over it.
Buehler subsequently earned a college business degree and worked about 15 years as an accountant.
But with encouragement from her husband, Dennis Buehler, she earned a bachelor’s degree related to fish and wildlife conservation and made a career change, taking a job with the Douglas County Conservation District.
Dawn Buehler also started volunteering by taking part in Kansas River cleanups held by Friends of the Kaw.
She applied successfully in 2015 for Friends of the Kaw’s riverkeeper job, which was being vacated by the retirement of Laura Calwell.
Riverkeeper is spokesperson, scientist
Friends of the Kaw since 2001 has been a member of the Global Waterkeeper Alliance, an international group of more than 300 organizations that work to protect waterways in 34 countries, says the Friends of the Kaw website.
“As part of that membership we were charged with hiring a non-governmental public advocate who would serve as the eyes, ears and voice of the Kansas River — the Kansas Riverkeeper,” that site says. “The Riverkeeper advocates for the river by acting as leader, scientist, educator, spokesperson and investigator.”
Friends of the Kaw also employs a part-time program manager and an education coordinator who works on a contract basis, Buhler said.
She said Friends of the Kaw raises money to pay its employees and otherwise finance its operations by holding fundraising events and acquiring grants, donations and membership fees.
Friends of the Kaw generally has about 600 members, with the cost to join being $35 a year for individuals and $60 a year for families, Buehler said.
The group’s members live “throughout the entire length of the river,” she said.
‘If you dump, we’re going to find it’
Buehler’s duties as riverkeeper include patrolling in a kayak to identify potential concerns.
She said she does that as many as three or four times a week during the warm-weather months, looking in particular for places where trash has been dumped.
While dumping doesn’t happen daily, “The fact that it still occurs at all is just amazing to me,” Buehler said.
She said river users regular inform her about dumped trash.
“If you dump, we’re going to find it and we’re going to report it,” Buehler said.
Efforts by Friends of the Kaws regularly result in litterers being ticketed by law enforcement, then fined, she said.
“You probably don’t hear about them a lot,” Buehler said. “We’re not really into the public-shaming aspect of all of this.”
Friends of the Kaw also holds 30 to 40 annual cleanups in which volunteers remove trash from specific stretches of the river, at times picking up large items that include refrigerators.
Wash car in car wash, not driveway
Friends of the Kaw each year also holds probably 18 to 20 paddle trips in which it educates students and members of the public about conservation issues, Buehler said.
She tells Topekans taking part in those trips about how the tap water Topeka’s city government provides residents has been removed from the Kansas River, then treated.
“If we’ve got a group of Topeka students, by golly, we’re talking about how their drinking water comes from the surface water of the Kansas river and what that means,” Bueher said. “You’re draining a 61,000-square mile watershed as your drinking water source.
“So do we care about what happens in the 61,000 square miles? Darn right we do.”
Buehler tells paddle trip participants about practical steps they can take to benefit the river, including washing their car at a car wash instead of in a driveway.
“Because when you wash it at a car wash, the water goes to the wastewater treatment plant and and is treated before it goes back to the river,” she said. “But if you wash your car in your driveway, all those soapy suds go back to the river untreated, which impacts the water quality, which impacts your drinking water supply.”
Beavers, river otters and bald eagles are present in and around the river
Buehler also enlightens paddle trip participants about the various wildlife present in and around the river, as evidenced by the tracks they leave.
Those animals include turtles, beavers, river otters, blue herons and various species of fish.
Deer also cross the river, Buehler said.
“When the river’s low, they’ll hop from sandbar to sandbar,” she said. “They’ll swim a little and then run and make their way all across the river.”
A record 24 active bald eagle nests along the river were documented this year by a network of eagle nest watch volunteers, said Mike Watkins.
He said he has worked with or volunteered for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 1989 to help document active bald eagle nesting territories throughout Kansas, and maintains a database listing those nests.
‘Fun, hardworking group of people’
The river has also seen an increase in recent years in the number of companies renting out kayaks and canoes to river users, or offering to serve as their guide, Buehler said.
Friends of the Kaw provides a list on its website of nine companies that offer those types of services.
Buehler said Friends of the Kaw also:
• Works to fortify and protect the river bank by planting native trees and plants there.
• Seeks to ensure the state provides sufficient funding to ensure water resource quantity and quality.
• Gets involved in discussions about “anything that will impact the river,” including potential riverfront development.
• Found groups that committed to picking up trash and discouraging dumping at all three of the river’s Topeka boat ramps. Those are at Kaw River State Park, near the intersection of N.E. Seward and Goodell and at the weir just north of the city’s water treatment plant at 3245 N.W. Waterworks Drive.
“We’re a fun, hardworking group of people who just care about our outdoor space,” she said.
Friends of the Kaw’s Facebook site provides further details about next month’s 30th anniversary celebration, for which a donation of $50 or more is requested to attend.
The event will be held on a sandbar if the Kansas River is low enough, and on land if it is not, Buehler said.
The celebration will feature food, beer, live music, the showing of a documentary about Friends of the Kaw’s history and — if the event takes place on a sandbar — a bonfire, Buehler said.
Tickets are available for purchase on the Friends of the Kaw Facebook site.