KANSAS CITY — For most of a century, the Blue River snaking though Kansas City has served as an industrial dumping ground and open sewer.
But that’s beginning to change as city officials, volunteers and industrial companies are working to restore the 41-mile-long waterway.
“The Blue River is a huge priority within the citywide plan,” said Shannon Jaax, lead planner in Kansas City’s planning and development department.
The city is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a $300 million flood-control project to enlarge the channel, including efforts to remove trash and run-down buildings from a 400-foot corridor for a 12.5-mile section of the river where it joins the Missouri River.
“We’ve hauled off almost 100,000 tons of scrap iron and trash and 20,000 to 30,000 tires,” said John Holm, project manager for the Corp. “There’s been an incredible cleanup effort that wouldn’t have happened without the channel project.”
Boat houses and resorts dotted the shore of the lower Blue River in the late 1800s. In 1928, city officials sought to add a 10-mile parkway with 100-foot easements along the river, asking voters to approve $1 million in bonds. While 63 percent of voters favored the idea, it failed to gain the two-thirds necessary for passage.
Owners of industrial companies fought against the plan, said David Jackson, Jackson County Historical Society archivist. They built a series of factory towns along the river, including Sheffield, Centropolis, Manchester and Leeds, which were annexed into Kansas City in 1909.
Blight in those areas has forced industrialists to rethink their position in recent years.
John R. Patrick, comptroller of the 95-year-old Clay & Bailey Manufacturing Co., said his metal-casting company is among those helping to rejuvenate the river to its previous natural beauty.
“The green space that comes from parks and trails attracts people and business into the area, and that reduces blight,” said Patrick, who is also president of the Kansas City Industrial Council.
The new channel is currently bare but will eventually look more natural, with the Corps considering adding pools and eddies to help wildlife and planting trees on the upper banks.
The city’s water department is looking to add a paved hiking trail from Swope Park to Truman Road along property acquired for the flood-control project. The first segments of the trail, which could also be connected to established trails in Johnson County, Kan., could be built in the next five years.
Todd Gemeinhardt, a Conservation Department fishery specialist, said fishing in the lower Blue River is good for channel catfish and the upper reaches are fair for bluegill and bass.
“There’s still upper sections that are pretty and include riffles and meanders like clearwater Ozarkian streams,” he said.
The river is still struggling with urban runoff and discharges from city storm sewer systems. Volunteers picking up trash along the banks in recent years have also found the bodies of murder victims.
But the city is hoping to combat the pollution by developing more rain gardens and wetland as part of an upcoming $2 billion sewer and stormwater system upgrade. That should help cleanse the Blue River and stabilize water flows.
Communities in Overland Park, Kan., where the river starts, are proposing new development regulations and federal dollars are being used to clean up pollution on industrial and commercial sites.
Bacteria levels in the river can still surpass safe levels after heavy rains, and droughts can cause river pools to become overridden with algae, said Don Wilkinson, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.
But Wilkinson said the environmental fixes are starting to improve overall water quality.
“The Blue is getting cleaner,” he said. “It looks like some things we’re doing on the river or upriver are working.”