You can talk about pollution and watersheds all you want, but all you really need to know about Lenexa’s award-winning stormwater management program comes down to this: friendly fish. At least that’s how Caleb Pillers, 5, sees it. The fish, and the chance to get out and walk in nature are the primary reasons Liza Pillers drives Caleb and his brother, Matthew, 9, all the way from Olathe to Lake Lenexa in Black Hoof Park.
“My friend had told me about this park and how her son loved it,” Pillers said. “She said they liked it so much if he wanted to come here every day, she would.”
The Pillers love the interaction with nature they get by walking the trails and searching for the little lizards that live there, she said.
Further east, Sharon Wienstroer, enjoys the scenery atop the Art Deco-looking concrete dam with Kathleen Rife and Bob Wright, both of Kansas City, Kan.
“It’s peaceful and it’s tranquil, a beautiful setting,” said Wienstroer of Overland Park. “It’s worthwhile right here for the view.”
Little would anyone know from walking the trails at this newest of Lenexa parks that the reason for its existence has more to do with flood control, pollution mitigation and a host of technical acronyms than with friendly fish.
In fact, Black Hoof Park owes its existence in part to the federal Clean Water Act, which turns 40 this year. But while other county jurisdictions have quietly done what’s required, Lenexa has managed to take a federal mandate and make it fun.
Man-made lakes and ponds are accompanied by walking trails and, sometimes, docks and picnic areas. Streamway renovation for flood control usually involves plantings of eye-catching native flowers. Educational outreach has included a rain barrel decorating contest. And once a year the city puts on a one-day Waterfest fair with activities for families and information about the clean water efforts.
In the process, the city has racked up an impressive number of awards and recognition. The most recent was a film done by the federal Environmental Protection Agency about the newest project, a series of pools designed to handle runoff at the City Center development in western Lenexa.
“Lenexa is clearly a national leader in this area,” said Tom Jacobs, director of environmental programs for the Mid-America Regional Council.
Kansas City has been working on a similar idea with its Metro Green project of connected streamway trails, he said. But Lenexa has the most integrated and comprehensive program with its Rain to Recreation program.
Black Hoof Park, off Monticello Road and Prairie Star Parkway, is the biggest project in the Rain to Recreation program. But the city also has restored Mize Lake, near Mize Boulevard and Kansas 10, and a small neighborhood park called Hidden Woods Pond near 83rd Terrace and Quivira Road. In addition, the city has redone stream beds at the Flat Rock Creek, Brentwood Park, Parkhurst and Manchester Park subdivisions.
Rain to Recreation got its start 12 years ago. At the time, memories of the deadly flash flood of October 1998 were still fresh, said Lenexa’s stormwater engineer, who is also named Tom Jacobs. Of the 11 people in the area who died during that flood, one was a Lenexan.
By 2000, the second phase of the Clean Water Act was coming into play, Jacobs said. The first phase required runoff and pollution mitigation from larger cities. The second required cities Lenexa’s size to join in. About the same time, the city put out its Vision 2020 survey — a guide for development based on residents’ input.
“They were strongly in favor of open space and recreation,” he said.
Based on that, the city came up with a plan to use the EPA’s Best Management Practices, such as native plantings and sediment-filtering pools, as a centerpiece for parks and recreation.
Sheila Shockey, a Lenexa consultant who helped the city develop the plan, remembers it as being appealing to all generations. “We would use the land as naturally as possible and not over-think and over-engineer it,” she said.
They pushed for and got a five-year sales tax increase of one-eighth of a cent. Combined with development fees and other tax money — much of it from the county — Lenexa was able to build the three areas with the most recreational use in short order.
Hidden Woods, the most urban, is a small pond with a boardwalk and fishing pier. It abuts a large cemetery and established neighborhood. Mize Lake is a seven-acre lake next to three wetlands with trails and fishing.
Lake Lenexa is the centerpiece, with a large shelter house, playgrounds, a boat ramp and boardwalk over wetlands. And of course, the striking dam, which resembles public projects of the 1930s.
But while recreation is nice, the parks perform a more important function, Lenexa’s Jacobs said. The tiered pools stepping down the hillside at City Center may look pretty, but they’re also keeping sediment from other building projects out of the water system.
The wetlands near Mize do the same thing, straining off construction silt and pollutants each time it rains. This keeps bigger lakes from silting in, he said. And those pretty flowers along the stream beds? Their roots are busy holding in the soil and preventing stream erosion.
The wetlands will require occasional dredging, Jacobs said. But “we’re trying to take the pollutants and sediment out of the water before it gets to the lake. It’s easier to clean out that way than 15 years down the road,” he said.
While Rain to Recreation has been popular, it is not perfect. Parking is limited at Mize Lake and Hidden Woods, and the peaceful sounds of nature at Lake Lenexa are disrupted somewhat by the constant gunfire from the Powder Creek Shooting Park next door. And the most extensive recreation has been built in the newer parts of the city, while older neighborhoods see less visible improvements on drainage. That’s because the city does not have as much land to work with in the established neighborhoods, Jacobs said.
Data proving the effectiveness of the projects also is hard to come by. Jacobs said he knew of one study from the University of Kansas that documents a reduction of pollutants in one specific area of one project. But getting good numbers is complicated by the fact that each watershed covers hundreds of acres of development. All that construction is bound to have a negative impact, he said. But he believes the city’s actions will keep the water cleaner than it would have been otherwise.
“It’s impossible to imagine there are not many positive effects,” said Tom Jacobs of MARC. But because the mitigation projects are relatively new, the impact is hard to judge. He added that people will see benefits not only in cleaner water, but in economic development due to the parks.
Rain to Recreation’s biggest projects have been done, said Jacobs of Lenexa. But the ideals of water conservation continue in other ways, such as the little retention areas built into the design of Prairie Star Parkway.
“It’s just part of doing business anymore,” Jacobs said. “That’s really the goal — to make the program a normal part of operations.”