Don Wilkison

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity




"Blue River Fall" photo by Pat Whalen


Tell us about a memory or your experience of the Blue River.

I have a lot of different memories of the Blue River because I spent a lot of time on it. For me it’s an interesting river because it contains the history of what has happened to a lot of American rivers. There was industrialization in the lower reaches, which is not considered good for sustainability, and then as you move upstream there’s a lot of places that put out to the [Missouri] river.


I like to go up to the Blue Ridge Boulevard area where you can be in the river in the middle of the city. There’s enough of a flow that drowns out any other sound, like the sound of traffic. And then in the fall there’s a lot of tree canopy. There’s trails there, a ball field, some pool and ripple sequences, different things for people to do.


How did you discover the Blue River?

I’ve lived in KC a while now, more than 40 years. I’ve always been a cyclist and Blue River Road goes all the way from Swope to Martin City and I’ve ridden that many, many times. But you don’t really see the river, which is a different kind of experience of the river. And then I started fishing – I don’t know how I got into that – I was surprised to find it. It didn’t feel like there was a lot of fish pressure so you could go out and use a really light tackle and you could catch sunfish and it was really fun.


I probably didn’t realize at the time, because it was another 20 years until I started studying the river, the funny thing about urban streams is that it’s easy not to see everything. You see what’s in front of you. But when I think about streams I think about what is really happening there and about the entire system. And I didn’t see that until I start studying the river more intensely. There’s always something to look at, even if it’s completely concreted over. It’s surprising how organisms are able to function.


What did you study?

I worked for USGS and we had a series of water quality studies where we looked at the quality of water, the stream flow, how water quality has changed, and tributary inputs to the river, wastewater treatments to the river, where the nutrients come from, the effects of development and road flow and how that has changed the river over the years. It’s a very unique river because it takes water from a different basin (The Kansas River Basin) and used by people in Johnson County but ultimately dispersed to the Blue River. It has an effect of low flows in the river.


What have you noticed?

I think the automobile and how much land surface we devote to automobiles has done serious damage to water and streams. It’s weird because people have become more aware of the consequences of our actions. My research was focused on the industrial effects on streams – whatever you put in your yard and how it’s interconnected to the stream systems. But Indian Creek is one of the largest tributaries and the effects the roads have are not good for the river. I feel like people treat water ok – they like it and they want to take care of it, but it’s also dangerous and they want to get rid of it. Rainfall is a good example. But to have a truly healthy ecosystem you need a lot of different things, the problem is when that intersects with our homes and businesses and we put a greater value on those things.


Until we get a really regional approach, we’ll never be able to solve those issues. What we really need is a regional water quality authority. Because right now people are able to do whatever they want to do as long as the local authority allows it, and the river has been subject to whatever people do. And people upstream do whatever and what they do gets passed down to those downstream. [People downstream] suffer from flooding events, low water quality, and lack of tree canopy. If you go below Brush Creek there’s no trees. When bike along there you’re looking at a 5-10 degree temperature difference. It’s also the effect on wildlife and fish in the stream. It’s a cumulative effect.



Photo by Zac Loehr


What are you doing now?

I try to talk to people about what I know. Recreate along the river, tell people about places to go and what to see.


Do you have a recommendation?

Blue River Road – the fact that part is blocked off makes walking and biking more interesting because there’s a lot of things to see and you see other people using the river in different ways – graffiti, living, they reclaim these areas that people have given up on. I’m intrigued by that.


Every time I’m next to a river and I can wade in it, I try to get in and turn over stones. I always encourage people to turn over stones and see what’s under there because you might be surprised.


Can you tell me about yourself as an artist?

I’m an interdisciplinary artist, which is the same kind of scientist I was. I approach it the same way I did as a scientist – you identify a problem and you find ways to approach it. Sometimes I do make environmental art but I don’t know if I’d call it that. I did some work for Natural State in Arkansas, which was informed by my research. I did a piece called “Tributary” to look at the Missouri River. The context might be “science” but it’s also in the context of “art.”


I did another project with the City – “The Marlborough Park” to put on a half-day kinetic sculptures called “Perpetual Motion” and the idea that the site is in perpetual motion. If you went there on a given day and saw the standing water and might not think of it as being in motion but it is with all that’s in the water.


Is there anything else you would like to add?

I always encourage people to go out and look at streams. I would encourage people to look at the entire course of the Blue River. Without me telling them my ideas about what I think is happening there – if you were to go from Overland Park Arboretum and go to different places on the Red Bridge Trail area. Go down to the lower regions like Brush Creek and Blue River to ride the trails and think about and look around and ask questions like “what do you see?” and “what are the differences?” and “what should we be doing to the streams to protect them?”




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