Pilot Project May Make Water More Affordable for Community Gardeners

One evening last week

One evening last week

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – At the end of last growing season, the Bhutanese community garden here lost a few of the families that helped tend about two-dozen plots.

They couldn’t afford their share of the water bill, said Rachel Friesen, community garden coordinator for Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.

Including meter fees and other charges, Friesen said, water service costs a total of at least $400 a month for the hillside garden, located on south 14th Street where it dead ends at the freeway.

“It’s hard to manage that cost for people who don’t make money from what they grow,” she said.

The water source is a nearby fire hydrant. One problem with that, Friesen said, is that the water pressure from the hydrant has caused breaks in the plastic irrigation piping that snakes through the garden.

Organizers say ready access to affordable water is one of the biggest hurdles faced by community gardeners. That’s why activists are cheering a pilot project in Wyandotte County.

In conjunction with H2O To Grow, a coalition of organizations that support urban farming, the Public Works Department is managing a $50,000 pilot project through its storm water management fund.

Through Aug. 22, the department is taking applications from growers seeking water-hookup grants from the fund. The plan is to have the grants pay for valves that tap into the public water supply.

Even a relatively straightforward hookup can cost as much as $10,000, said Katherine Kelly, executive director of Cultivate Kansas City, which is part of H20 To Grow. A more complicated hookup might cost twice that, she said.

The valves, she said, would provide easily accessible water to sites that now cobble together solutions, or in cases like the Kansas Bhutanese Community Garden, provide a cheaper alternative to a fire hydrant.

“I think ultimately the goal is to increase the sheer poundage of food being grown in Wyandotte County,” Kelly said. “Every year new farms get started, new gardens get started. This is an issue that has snowballed and has a lot of momentum, and so we would very much like (the fund) to continue and have that be one more way the community can increase its food self-sufficiency.”

The storm water management fund is a roughly $2 million account generated from excise charges on developed properties, according to Public Works Director Bob Roddy. The fund, he said, helps the department mitigate the effects of accelerated storm water runoff from roofs, parking lots and other surfaces.

It might seem odd to some that a storm-water fund is being used to help bring water to sites.

But, Roddy said, the pilot project with H2O To Grow addressed “a variety of community goals that kind of converged together.”

For instance, he said:

  • When community gardens replace hard-packed vacant lots, they can reduce the flow of muddy water leaving the site by using conservation efforts like rain-catchment systems and mulch. Applicants for the pilot funding must include plans for mitigating runoff.
  • Eliminating vacant lots also means less potential for these sites to become dumping grounds that send trash into public waterways.
  • Community gardens funded through the pilot could serve as demonstration projects for other residents in how to manage vacant lots.
  • Community gardens mesh with the countywide effort to improve the health of Wyandotte County residents

At the Bhutanese garden, Kelly said, the growers already use terraces and other methods from their home country to capture water.

But there’s always room for improvement, she said. Perhaps as part of their application to the pilot, she said, the gardeners will promise to collect leaves in the fall for mulch.

She said the wooded vacant property adjacent to the garden also holds potential for the gardeners because it would provide a perfect habitat for fiddlehead ferns. The plant is a staple in Bhutan, she said, and it can fetch as much as $40 a pound from restaurants in the U.S.

Friesen said the hope is that Cultivate Kansas City can get the site donated for use by the Bhutanese.

At the outset, she said, the gardeners probably would just grow the fiddleheads for their own consumption.

Meanwhile, Friesen said, taking over that site would help solve another problem.

“That is a dumping site — big time,” she said.

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