Posts tagged with Kansas

State makes battle plan for toxic algae

During the past summer, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment tracked toxic blue-green algal blooms in more than 40 lakes and ponds.

Those blooms caused 16 people to fall ill and the deaths of at least four dogs. Money lost from visitors who stayed away from some of the state’s most popular summer recreation spots hasn’t been calculated. Neither has the number of other animals who became sick or died from algae-infested ponds.

As the weather cools, days grow shorter and winds pick up, the algal blooms across Kansas are disappearing. And as they do, state agencies are beginning to study just how well they responded to this year’s outbreak and how to better manage future blooms.

“As we go into the winter months, we aren’t just going to put the binder back on the shelf,” said Tom Langer, KDHE director of the Bureau of Environmental Health. “We are studying what we have learned. This was the second summer we have been collecting this type of data.”

The KDHE plans to have an epidemiologist look at the health effects of the blooms. They plan to write papers, publish their findings and share the information they’ve gathered with other states.

One thing’s certain: Algal blooms will return next year. When and where will be harder to predict.

“For our state, the one thing we all have to understand is based on the geography of where we live. Every lake, every pond is a candidate,” Langer said.

Key to controlling blue-green algal blooms is better management of the nutrients that run into watersheds and into lakes and ponds. Those nutrients makes it easier for algae to flourish.

“This is not something you can flip the switch and change. It takes decades and decades to get to a condition like this. And it will take decades before we resolve this,” Langer said.

One community in Kansas already has begun to take serious steps. Great Bend, which has had a blue-green algal problem in a community lake since January, is looking at ways to restore its watershed and better manage what flows into the drainage area. Langer hopes lessons learned in Great Bend can be applied throughout Kansas.

Last summer, the state got a glimpse of just how bad it could get when Kansas’ largest reservoir, Milford Lake, was closed to swimming, wading and water skiing for nearly three months.

Last week, an algal bloom that had been festering in Milford Lake since the end of June returned to normal levels. But it was far too late to attract many of the visitors who had stayed away during those hot summer days.

“It scared away a lot of people,”, said Jan Boan, who owns the Flagstop Resort and RV Park, a campground on the edge of the lake.

After Labor Day, most people packed up and went home, Boan said.

“There’s not much going on outside other than fishermen in the water,” she said last week.

A unique set of circumstances made the algal bloom at Milford Lake particularly bad this summer. At the base of the lake is nutrient-rich soil. Even more nutrients were absorbed this year when upstream flooding pushed the reservoir 15 feet above its normal level. And for much of the summer, none of that extra water could be released from Milford because of downstream flooding.

And then there were the days upon days of 100-degree temperatures.

“It was a giant Petri dish,” Langer said.

The toxic algal bloom in Milford Lake had a far reach. When floodwaters finally receded downstream in late August, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released water from Milford Lake. When the water flowed through the Kansas River it brought with it toxic levels of blue-green algae that could be detected all the way to Johnson County. Those levels prompted the city of Lawrence to stop pulling water from the Kansas River.

Tests later showed that the blue-green algae levels weren’t be detected in treated drinking water. But it was one example of just how interconnected watersheds are.

“We want people to understand the severity of it. It’s not just white noise, Chicken Little or a boy crying wolf,” Langer said of the blue-green algae outbreaks and the health of the state’s aging lakes. “It is going to affect every single one of us. We rely on water. It’s important that we are taking the proper steps.”

By Christine Metz

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Dozens dig up facts on museum’s rock, fossil findings

The Kansas University Natural History Museum displayed dozens of fossils on Sunday and offered amateur fossil hunters a chance to identify their finds.

The event, “What on Earth? Rocks, Fossils and Meteorites,” gave visitors the chance to learn about the museum’s collection, as well as which fossils they could expect to find in the area.

“The Natural History Museum is here to serve the public,” said Jen Humphrey, communications director at the museum. “They can learn not all fossils are dinosaurs.”

Indeed, there was much more to see than dinosaurs. The event had several display tables dedicated to different species of plants, insects, mammals and even sea monsters.

One of the tables featured fossils found in the Kansas River, bones of ancient elk, bison and beaver. These extinct ancestors were far bigger than their present-day descendants; the archaic beaver would have been over four feet long with five-inch teeth.

David Burnham, a paleontologist at the KU Biodiversity Institute, talked with visitors and showed off the institute’s newest addition: a dinosaur skull found in Montana, still encased in rock and wrapped in a plaster jacket.

“It comes as a giant 600-pound plaster boulder,” Burnham said. He is now in the process of extracting the skull from the stone.

The event also showcased smaller fossils from around the area. Andrew Bireta, 12, brought a box of fossils he found near Kansas Highway 10, east of Eudora, to be identified. They included plants and small clams from more than 300 million years ago.

Dozens of people came to the museum, 1345 Jayhawk Blvd., to learn from the institute’s researchers and KU graduate students.

“If people have any questions, they’re always welcome to bring it to our lab,” said Carla Harper, a graduate student from Del Rio, Texas. “We really support that.”

Humphrey said the museum periodically holds events to educate the public. She also said it was a great chance to showcase the institute’s vast collection, which includes more than 9 million specimens.

By Chris Hong

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Garden Calendar: Grow your own horseradish

If you like horseradish, you might try producing your own. The herb is easy to grow and survives through the winter in Kansas, so now is the best time to plant it. Horseradish also stores well after harvest.

For those unfamiliar with horseradish, it is an herb with a distinct aroma and flavor. Horseradish is often described as being hot, but the flavor is much different than that of hot peppers or chilies. Horseradish is often found in dips and sauces, as a topping on steak, and is the key ingredient in imitation wasabi. My personal favorite horseradish recipes are horseradish mustard and plain horseradish mixed into mashed potatoes.

The roots are the only part of the horseradish plant that is consumed, so soil preparation is important for good yield. Add compost or organic matter to the garden and work it into the soil before planting. A general rule of thumb when adding organic matter is to spread one to two inches of material over the soil surface, and mix it in to the soil to a depth of eight to ten inches.

Fertilizer is also best added prior to planting, but a soil test should be done to determine what nutrients are needed in the area. Soil samples can be submitted to your local county Extension office for testing and recommendations. Thanks to a grant from the Douglas County Conservation District, Douglas County residents can test up to 10 samples per year for free, basic analysis only.

Plant horseradish root cuttings three to four inches deep and 12 to 18 inches apart. One or two horseradish plants will probably provide more than enough horseradish for a family. If you miss planting this fall, root cuttings can also be planted in early spring as soon as the ground thaws.

Apply mulch over the soil surface to control weeds. Prairie hay, straw or chopped leaves are examples of mulching materials that work well with horseradish.

Horseradish plants do require a little bit of maintenance. The plants should be lifted and stripped a couple of times during the growing season. Lifting and stripping means to remove the soil around the crown of the plant, raise it up, and remove the small roots on the crown and sides of the main root. This encourages the main root to gain size. Also, remove all but the best sprout or crown of leaves. The plant and soil are then returned to its original position.

Generally, the first lifting and stripping should be done when the plant’s leaves reach eight to 10 inches long. The second lifting and stripping should occur about six weeks after the first.

Horseradish is harvested in late October or early November, preferably after a hard frost or freeze. To dig roots without damaging plants, dig a trench alongside the row, then loosen plants with a spading fork. Grasp plant leaves and gently pull the plants towards the trench and out of the ground.

Cut the largest roots from the plant for use. Smaller side and bottom roots can be re-planted. Roots for planting can also be wrapped and refrigerated for planting at a later date.

After harvesting, wrap horseradish roots in dark-colored plastic (roots wrapped in clear plastic may discolor from light exposure) and store in the refrigerator or freezer. Fresh horseradish will usually maintain its flavor in the refrigerator for four to six weeks. If frozen, horseradish keeps about six months.

To use harvested horseradish, peel or scrape the roots first. Then use a grater or blender to shred the roots. The University of Illinois recommends filling a blender halfway with diced horseradish roots and adding a small amount of water and ice before grinding. Add one to two tablespoons of white vinegar, a half-teaspoon of salt and one tablespoon of sugar.

White vinegar is added to ground horseradish root to stop the enzymatic activity that builds heat. For hotter horseradish, wait a few minutes after grinding to add vinegar. Cider vinegar discolors the horseradish and is not recommended for use. If not using immediately, place the prepared horseradish in tightly sealed containers for storage.

If you prefer, grated horseradish can be added directly to food or placed in lemon juice and served immediately.

The origins of horseradish as a name are partially unknown. Some researchers believe it may have come from an adaptation of the German name for the plant, meerretich. Meerretich means sea radish, and the plant grew wild in European coastal areas. The name horseradish first appeared in print in 1597.

— By Jennifer Smith, the Horticulture Extension Agent for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County. Contact her or an Extension Master Gardener with your gardening questions at 843-7058.

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Wind energy projects increasing in Kansas, but they could slow down if federal tax credit changes

Kansas will more than double its production of wind energy in the next 18 months, but the status of federal energy policy could slow development by 2013, officials said Tuesday.

Eight announced projects totaling $2.7 billion in capital investment and producing 1,388 megawatts of power are coming online in the state.

“It has been a really exciting time, to say the least,” said Kimberly Svaty, of The Wind Coalition. Currently, 1,072 megawatts of wind energy is produced in Kansas.

Svaty told the House-Senate Committee on Energy and Environmental Policy that there were dozens more potential projects. And Kansas has recently landed several large manufacturing facilities of wind turbine components.

But Svaty said that uncertainty about whether the federal government will continue a wind production tax credit will slow growth.

“It would be fair to say there is significant amount of uncertainty surrounding the production tax credit. We’re not sure what the direction is of the federal government on energy in general. There are so many question marks on where does the country want to go with energy policy,” Svaty said.

Wind developers were generally pleased with the pace of development of wind energy in Kansas and with state-approved tax breaks that are used as incentives.

But some county officials voiced concerns.

Elk County Commissioner Liz Hendricks said the Caney River Wind Project there was a major source of income for county government. But she added it was “unfortunate” that Gov. Sam Brownback expanded the “Tallgrass Heartland” area of the Flint Hills, which made the Elk County off limits to further wind-farm expansion.

“Due to Gov. Brownback’s recent decisions, we will not have Phase 2 or Phase 3. For a county like us, we will not see this kind of economic impact other than a wind farm,” Hendricks said.

Brownback expanded the protected area, saying the Flint Hills should be developed more for tourism.

By Scott Rothschild

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Delay means Kansans won’t get federal funds to make their homes more energy efficient

Federal stimulus dollars that were supposed to go toward making thousands of Kansans’ homes more energy efficient will now fund two renewable energy projects because the state could not spend the money fast enough, state officials said Tuesday.

“I’m sure there are some people who will not receive money. I take all the blame right here. We did the best we could at the time,” Kansas Secretary of Commerce Pat George told the House-Senate Committee on Energy and Environmental Policy.

The state received $38.3 million in 2009 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to set up a program that offered low-interest loans to Kansans to make their homes more energy efficient.

But the program started slowly. At first the interest rates weren’t competitive, and the requirements to qualify were relatively high.

During the 2011 session, the Kansas Legislature directed the KCC to work with the Kansas Board of Regents, and that resulted in nearly $7 million being used for energy projects on college campuses.

But with the clock ticking toward the April 1, 2012, deadline, and the bulk of the grant still unspent, Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration pulled funding from the program and received federal approval to spend $20 million on two renewable biofuels projects. In addition, $1.5 million has been set aside to take care of the home efficiency loans that had been in the process of approval when the state redirected the funding.

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, and Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka, expressed concern about the change in funding. “Business is now getting the benefit. The people we serve have been cut out of the loop,” Kuether said.

George said the two projects would create jobs and position Kansas as a leader in biofuels.

Some $15.6 million of the stimulus funds will go toward the purchase of biomethane digester equipment technology at an ethanol facility operated by Western Plains Energy near Oakley. The company’s power plant will be converted to use biomethane produced from cattle manure instead of natural gas to run the biofuel production process, according to the Commerce Department.

And $4.9 million will be used to support a biomass harvesting, handling and delivery demonstration project operated by the Kansas Alliance for Biorefining and Bioenergy.

By Scott Rothschild

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U.S. prosecutors are getting tough with felons who pick up guns again

It was an expensive trip to Walmart for 29-year-old Reuben James Zeller of Lawrence.

And not because of the bullets he had someone purchase for him.

That purchase a law enforcement informant made for Zeller on Oct. 6, 2010, in Topeka will cost him 15 years in federal prison because he was barred from possessing a gun or weapons because of his past convictions. Zeller is also accused of committing a drive-by shooting at a Topeka residence in October 2010.

U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom, the top federal prosecutor in the state, is highlighting Zeller’s recent plea agreement with prosecutors as an example of cracking down on repeat violent offenders who don’t change their ways after they get out of prison.

“They are back and hanging out with the same buddies,” Grissom told the Lawrence Central Rotary Club last month.

He and other Department of Justice officials nationally are worried the violent behavior could continue to escalate, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has stressed that federal prosecutors should work with local law enforcement to get guns out of the hands of felons. Holder’s order came after 162 law enforcement officers nationally were killed in 2010. Grissom, whom President Barack Obama nominated to the Kansas post in 2010, said that was the deadliest year for law enforcement in more than two decades and that the country was on track to beat that number this year.

Grissom also highlighted a recent 11-month undercover investigation in Wichita conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in which 67 people were charged, and authorities, with the help of local law enforcement, recovered 200 guns — including ones reported stolen and sawed-off shotguns — and illegal drugs.

Under federal law, it’s illegal for anyone convicted of a felony and drug traffickers to possess guns or ammunition.

Grissom said federal agents and prosecutors have been working with local officers to target convicted felons who might still be possessing guns. He also has said they were looking to do similar operations in the Kansas City, Kan., and Topeka areas.

“If you know who those folks are and you can find them with weapons or ammunition, we can take that person out of the community and make the community safer,” Grissom said. “We’re taking a very active stance on doing those kinds of things.”

One Topeka man, Steven Allen Contee, 33, was sentenced last week to serve seven years in federal prison for selling three shotguns with co-defendant Patrick M. Tracy Jr. to ATF agents working under cover at a hotel parking lot in Topeka on Feb. 5. Both Contee and Tracy had prior felony convictions.

Reuben Zeller, the Lawrence man who is expected to serve 15 years in federal prison, seems to fit the profile for the type of criminal federal authorities are most concerned about. According to the Kansas Department of Corrections, Zeller in 2003 received a prison sentence for a 2002 burglary in Jackson County north of Topeka. He also has a Shawnee County burglary conviction and an aggravated assault conviction from 2005 in Osage County, all of which barred him from possessing a firearm.

But during his most recent crime spree in 2010 after he was paroled in 2009, federal authorities allege through a witness that Zeller was distributing firearms and prescription drugs to people in Lawrence and Topeka.

According to the proffer for Zeller’s guilty plea in the federal case, Zeller told an informant on Sept. 27 he fired 18 rounds from a Remington 9 mm handgun into the residence of a man he had argued with earlier. He later pleaded no contest in an October Douglas County case in which he is accused of threatening someone, and as part of his federal plea agreement, Zeller will enter a plea in the Shawnee County shooting case.

About two weeks after the drive-by shooting, officers used reviewed surveillance video from a Topeka Walmart store and obtained video of Zeller giving money to a confidential informant to buy him ammunition, which he was barred from possessing as a felon.

“The things that people don’t go hunting with,” Grissom said. “They only use them in commission of crimes. We took those off the streets.”

By George Diepenbrock

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Audio-Reader celebrates 40 years of helping visually impaired

At 103 years old, Bill Calwell still plays golf and goes fishing. The Topeka resident has authored three books and continues to write on an old Royal typewriter.

However, his vision limits his ability to read, a big problem for a writing man. No worries, though. For the past 15 years, Calwell has subscribed to a free program that provides him audio recordings of his work and reads him the day’s news.

It’s called Audio-Reader, a Kansas University public service for visually impaired people. It’s based in Lawrence at the Baehr home, 1120 W. 11th St., next door to Kansas Public Radio. It broadcasts readings of national and local newspapers and excerpts of books 24 hours a day.

“It’s my right hand,” Calwell said. “Sometimes I think, at my age, my life wouldn’t be worth living without it.”

Public-radio stations broadcast the program on a subchannel received through specially tuned radios. Audio-Reader provides free radios to anyone with a documented vision handicap.

The founder, the late Petey Cerf, an advocate for elderly people, realized nursing home patients needed such a service. She ignored skeptics and started the program with the university, which agreed to administer the program through its KANU station and pay for receivers. Cerf bought the transmitter required to broadcast the program. Audio-Reader began broadcasting 40 years ago Tuesday from the Sudler house, now the Max Kade Center.

“Probably not more than three or four of us could record at a time,” said Eleanor Symons, who has volunteered for 40 years.

The station gradually grew, acquiring an old prison trailer and expanding its broadcast range beyond Lawrence. In 1988, the station moved into its current location, formally a fraternity house.

Today, the program is hosted on the NPR satellite and picked up by seven stations in Kansas and Missouri. Stations as far away as California and New Jersey broadcast select portions. Lori Kesinger, program manager, said Audio-Reader is nationally recognized for its excellence.

Programming is a mix of national and local news. Kesinger said the focus is to keep listeners in touch with their community.

“I try to ask, ‘If you lived in that town, what would you look for?’” Kesinger said.

Users can call in and listen to the day’s news over the phone. They can also submit documents to be recorded.

Audio-Reader relies on funding from the university and private donors, including the Lions Club. Money comes in cycles and, lately, Kesinger said it’s a low one. The station is not facing immediate danger, though.

“It’s not going to shut down,” she said. “The founders set up a good framework.”

Volunteers read thousands of pages every day.

When asked what motivated her to work with the organization for 40 years, Symons said it was the same reason she started.

“Honestly, I like reading aloud,” she said. “I always have.”

By Chris hong

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State plans to apply for waiver of requirements in No Child Left Behind law

The State Board of Education voted Tuesday to apply in February for a waiver of requirements under the No Child Left Behind law.

President Barack Obama opened the door for states to have more flexibility in complying with the law after Congress failed to approve a newer version of the measure.

The U.S. Department of Education said it would drop the requirement that all students must earn a proficient score on tests for reading and math by 2014.

Critics of the law said that was an impossible goal and that the law branded some schools as failures when they were really improving.

Instead, the federal agency said it would grant waivers to the requirement if states either imposed standards to better prepare students for college and careers, reduced the achievement gap between sets of students, extended the deadline to achieve 100 percent efficiency to the 2019-20 school year, or adopted incentives for high-performing schools and plans to help low-performing schools.

Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said it would take several months of work to get the state’s application for a waiver in shape.

Once the application is made, she said the federal education department would let Kansas know by the end of the current school year whether the waiver has been granted.

Education Board members said they would provide more direction on the waiver application at the board’s meeting in November. The board voted 8-1 to give staff the green light to start preparing the application. Board member Walt Chappell, a Republican from Wichita, voted against the plan.

Several board members said they would oppose applying for a waiver under the option of trying to achieve 100 percent proficiency by 2019-20. They said the 100 percent goal was one of the onerous requirements of NCLB and extending that period wouldn’t solve the problem.

“I don’t think extending the time out makes it any more possible,” said Sue Storm, a Democrat from Overland Park. “I think that’s kind of foolish thinking to think that that would work,” she said.

Several board members also criticized federal proposals seeking to link teacher pay to student achievement. Board chairman David Dennis, a Republican from Wichita, said he feared that would result in teachers trying to get better students in their classes at the expense of other teachers.

“I don’t want to end up having teachers shopping for kids,” he said.

By Scott Rothschild

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Pony Express riders carry letters from Lecompton to Topeka in commemorative event

At this age, it’s OK to celebrate your milestones together.

Kansas is 150 this year, and the Pony Express ended 150 years ago following a brief but legendary existence.

The anniversaries of the two were commemorated Monday in a re-ride of the Pony Express from Lecompton to the steps of the Capitol.

“We need to remember what has gone before us,” said Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach after he received commemorative letters from Gov. Sam Brownback and four former governors.

The letters were delivered by riders of the Kansas division of the National Pony Express Association, which re-creates the Pony Express experience in re-rides.

The Pony Express was a private mail service in which horseback riders would relay mail between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif. It started on April 3, 1860, and lasted for 18 months, until connection of the transcontinental telegraph.

The nearly 2,000-mile journey covering eight states took about 10 days, according to the National Pony Express Association. Riders were paid $25 per week and rode 10 to 12 miles before changing horses. A different rider started about every 75 miles.

In his letter, Brownback, who was traveling in Russia on Monday on a trip to market Kansas farm products, said, “It is nearly impossible to think of those daring young riders braving the dangerous journey to aid in the growth and expansion of a grateful nation without thinking of the rolling plains and rustic beauty of Kansas. The two are tangled in our lore and our vision of the past, dependent on one another and forever intertwined.”

Monday’s ride started about 9 a.m. in Lecompton, Kansas’ territorial capital. Thirteen Kansas riders and 3 1/2 hours later, the mail was delivered to the Capitol.

By Scott Rothschild

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Incomplete registries of sex offenders highlight monitoring problems

Gregorio Medina, 24, was convicted of 19 sex crimes, including raping a 5-year-old Liberal girl multiple times in 2003. Though Medina, 16 at the time of the crimes, was charged as a juvenile, he’s legally required to register as a sex offender until 2012.

But, as with more than 100 other Kansas sex offenders who’ve left the state since 2006, authorities have no idea where Medina is.

An ongoing Journal-World investigation has been tracking offenders like Medina, only to discover they’re slipping through the cracks.

For instance, Medina told Kansas authorities he moved to Oklahoma, where he’d be required to register on that state’s offender registry. Oklahoma, however, has no record of him.

Medina’s case further highlights a large gap in sex offender registries that were designed to help the public and law enforcement keep an eye on dangerous offenders: Sex offenders can simply skip over state lines and fall off law enforcement’s radar.

“All of the states and agencies are struggling with this,” said Staca Urie, deputy director of the case analysis division with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

And authorities seem ready to pass the buck on whose responsibility it is to follow up on offenders who cross state lines.

In Kansas, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation notifies another state when an offender indicates he or she is moving, but there’s no follow-up, said Kyle Smith, deputy director of the KBI.

“It’s up to (the new state and the offender) to” register, Smith said.

Medina was one of 10 offenders who left Kansas and told authorities they were moving to Oklahoma, but none show up on the Oklahoma registry.

While state laws for registered offenders differ, most require offenders who have moved in from another state to register for as long as they were required to in their previous state. For instance, if a sex offender who was required to register for life in Oklahoma moved to Kansas, that offender would be required to register for life in this state. Offenders who move to a new state but fail to register are usually committing three felony offenses — one each from the states, as well as a federal felony.

The Journal-World contacted the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, which monitors that state’s registry, but officials said tracking down those offenders wasn’t their problem.

“Tell the marshals,” said Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

Under federal law, the U.S. Marshals Office has authority to investigate and arrest sex offenders who fail to register when they move to another state.

The marshals do perform “sweeps” across the country, which are concentrated efforts to track down offenders, said Dave Oney, spokesman for the marshals.

But Oney said the marshals, which created a specialized unit in 2007 to track sex offenders, often rely on state authorities to notify them of offenders who should be registered but aren’t.

If the states don’t know an offender has entered their state, and if the state they left doesn’t follow up, the marshals might have no way of knowing. And with the large number of sex offenders moving across state lines, it’s difficult for the marshals to keep up.

“It usually comes down to resources,” Oney said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated the number of sex offenders in the country who should be registered at more than 700,000, with about 100,000 unaccounted for.

It all amounts to a registry with a lot of bark, but not much bite, said Mary Evans, a criminal justice doctoral candidate at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Evans has studied sex offender registries and found that most are “largely inaccurate” and symbolic in nature.

“We have laws that make us feel us feel good” but aren’t necessarily strictly enforced, she said.

By Shaun Hittle

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