Ron talking to farmers in front of a corn field

Making a Difference for Kansas Water Quality

Story by Melissa Harvey

Some of us measure a career in terms of years. Ron Graber, extension watershed specialist for Kansas State University, uses a whole different yardstick.

“When we start a career, we hope to make a difference,” said Graber. For him, that success is measured in innovative partnerships, successful management strategies, and improved water quality.

Graber is a member of a six-member K-State Research and Extension watershed specialist team, working to restore water quality across Kansas. He and the rest of the team work one-on-one with landowners and operators to inspire a fundamental change in behavior and practices toward natural resources like water and soil. Without this careful facilitation and a unique ability to build rapport and trust with the community, the program wouldn’t thrive.

Ron Graber speaking with farmers in front of a corn field
Ron Graber speaks with producers during a cover crop tour in his watershed in central Kansas. Photo credit: Amanda Schielke, KCARE

That’s where he comes in: Graber plays an active role in the state’s Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategies (WRAPS) program, a planning and management framework that engages stakeholders within a particular watershed in a process to identify water quality needs within their watersheds and implement an EPA-approved 9-element plan to manage and achieve watershed goals.

Working out of central Kansas, he has been involved in the WRAPS program for decades and coordinated the formation of several local watershed groups – including for the Little Arkansas, Lower Smoky, and Grouse Silver Creek watersheds. He also brokered the first multi-WRAPS funded project in the Upper Timber Creek and Grouse Silver Creek watersheds. Today, Graber acts as the coordinator for the Little Arkansas River WRAPS group where he has helped to create innovative partnerships that protect state and local water resources while benefitting both urban and rural interests.

“It became very clear from the start that bridging the gap between our urban and rural neighbors was going to be key to solving some of the most persistent issues for water quality in our watershed,” he said. Where others may have noticed only the differences between the “city” and the “country” communities, Graber saw the combination of a densely populated urban area like Wichita surrounded by heavily farmed acres as a recipe for success.

Back in 2006, atrazine levels in the Little Arkansas River were rising, resulting in spikes that threatened the quality of the City of Wichita’s drinking water. To combat this, Graber was part of a team that formed an atrazine management program, where participating farmers implemented atrazine best management plans (BMPs) on corn and sorghum acres, resulting in annual reductions of up to 53% less atrazine applied in the targeted watersheds. Over time, BMP implementation also reduced annual atrazine runoff by an average of 51% on targeted acres, and the number of atrazine spikes decreased significantly. This program is still going strong, with producers who choose to participate in the program receiving an incentive payment for their participation provided by the City of Wichita.

Graber also helps lead the area’s offsite BMP program. This arrangement is the first of its kind and provides an option for urban developers to avoid costly and, frankly, less effective sediment-reducing technology while incentivizing producers upstream to implement best management practices to prevent sediment from entering the waterways. To date, these “offsite” management efforts have reduced more than 2600 tons of sediment while saving more than $6 million in upfront costs for private development.

This holistic approach is an innovative way to address regional water quality, and it provides economic profit and multiple benefits for the watershed.

“The water in a river might flow downstream, but we quickly learned that a good partnership runs both ways,” Graber said. “The upstream neighbors recognize the needs of their downstream neighbors, and vice-versa.”

Ron Graber, Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment, Kansas State University

Ron Graber is an Extension Watershed Specialist with the Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment (KCARE) at Kansas State University. His primary focus as a watershed specialist is to educate local citizens about non-point source pollution issues and motivate those citizens to implement water quality restoration and protection actions. Ron works with livestock producers, regardless of operation size, to conduct environmental assessment and to assist in identifying management options best suited for their individual operation. He also helps growers with water quality protection by providing information on best management practices (BMPs) for crop production as it relates to water quality. 

Ron is a K-State graduate, holding both a Bachelor of Science degree and a master’s degree in Agriculture. Prior to his work as a watershed specialist, Ron was a County Extension Agent for K-State Research and Extension in both Osage and Harvey counties. He has worked as a watershed specialist since 2000.

Some WRAPS projects and the watershed specialist program are funded in part by Section 319 of the Clean Water Act.

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