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Making the Grade: How healthy is the Blue River?

By Jill Erickson

Ian Fannin-Hughes (left) and Mallory Butler (right) conduct the stream visual assessments in July 2020. The stream visual assessments measure the impact on the habitats, riparian areas, banks and stream beds of the Blue River. They are important measurements for the Water Quality Indicator in the Blue River Report Card. 

Since its beginning, Heartland Conservation Alliance has focused conservation efforts on the Blue River Watershed. And for good reason. In the Kansas City region, the Blue River touches more lives than others as it flows 42 miles from Kansas through underserved communities and post-industrial stretches before it flows into the Missouri River, the source of the city’s drinking water. The Blue River Watershed covers 270 square miles and is home to half a million people; it is one of 20 EPA Urban Waters locations across the US. The Blue River and its three major tributaries are 303(d) listed streams – meaning they are not in compliance with the Clean Water Act.

In order to track progress on improving the health of the watershed, and with support from The Nature Conservancy in Kansas and the Missouri Department of Conservation, we developed and published the 2019 Blue River Report Card. Guiding the process was a team from the University of Maryland who helped us follow a collaborative five-step process throughout the year including collecting data, conducting stream side visits, and holding meetings.

This was truly a team effort!

We collected, scored, and graded data for 13 of the 14 indicators chosen by stakeholders (we began with 23 indicators) for the six categories. There were 33 category meetings held in 2019, including two and a half days in the field collecting data. There were hundreds of individual hours spent collecting, scoring, and grading the indicators and categories; stories, descriptive paragraphs, pictures, and graphics were developed for the report card document.

The score for the watershed was a “C-.” The results tell us that the Blue River is threatened, and we must do better.

Areas where we believe critical and immediate action is needed include improving "Collaborative Watershed Governance," which received an “F” in every section. We recommend that every city in the Blue River Watershed consider adopting a Healthy Watershed Resolution and work collaboratively to monitor and improve the river’s health. We also recommend focusing on using green infrastructure, strategic planning for open space, and nature-based solutions to support improved scores in the "Development" section. “Native Habitat” and “Riparian Cover” indicators received a “D” or “F” in almost every section. We recommend that parks departments, neighborhoods, and city planners come together to evaluate our natural resources and adopt the Blue River Action Plan – a watershed-wide management plan – to identify projects and resources to improve the health of the watershed. Finally, the “Awareness” indicator received a “D” in every section. We recommend that increasing outreach and education be a high priority for organizations and institutions. We strongly urge more participation in the “Renew the Blue” campaign to unite local efforts and maximize limited resources. Awareness is the key to inspiring action at the grassroots level and at the policy-making level.

We took time last year to distribute the Report Card through public presentations and workshops, informing participants and providing opportunities for ongoing feedback. Heartland Conservation Alliance is thrilled to announce that we have partnered with Courtney Masterton, founder of Native Lands to reconvene the stakeholders and review data this year. We plan to publish the Report Card later this year. If you want us to present the results to your organization or join the process please let us know! Stay tuned and learn more at Renew the Blue at

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