by Katie Pratt
Some of Kentucky’s streams and creeks have unhealthy levels of pollutants. In cooperation with numerous local and state organizations and businesses, College researchers have begun projects at Cane Run Creek in northern Fayette and Scott counties and at Guy Cove watershed in Breathitt and Perry counties to restore two of the state’s impacted watersheds to their original vitality.
“This is not just a Lexington issue,” said Steve Workman, UK bioenvironmental engineer and lead researcher on the Cane Run watershed project. “Several cities across the state have consent decrees with the Environmental Protection Agency,” he said, talking about agreements to cease a particular water-related practice. “There’s going to have to be a mindset change for the whole state about what makes up a healthy stream.”
Encompassing about 29,000 acres, the Cane Run Creek Watershed takes up a portion of the Central Kentucky landscape and is the main water source for the city of Georgetown. For years the watershed has been plagued with a series of issues including flash flooding, invasive species, erosion, and pollution. UK researchers are working on a $1.8 million project funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and administered by the Kentucky Division of Water. The project focuses on correcting problems in the portion of the stream that runs from north Lexington into rural northern Fayette County.
Several community partners are also involved in this study, including Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, Lexmark, Friends of Cane Run, Kentucky Horse Park, Kentucky Geological Survey, Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council, Tracy Farmer Center for the Environment, Cane Run Watershed Council, the Green Acres Neighborhood, Spindletop Estates, Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute, Legacy Trail staff, and the Bluegrass Partnership for a Green Community.
“When we first started the project, we developed the Cane Run Watershed Council because we wanted to organize water quality activities going on in the watershed and figure out how we could utilize University resources, whether technical or financial, in our project to continue to restore the stream,” said Amanda Abnee Gumbert, extension specialist for water quality.
Cane Run Creek poses unique challenges compared to other streams in the area. For one, it is one of the state’s priority streams because it is an impaired waterway that directly supplies water for a city. Cane Run also has been extremely difficult to map because it flows both aboveground and underground through a series of sinkholes into a cave network. UK researchers have been working with the Kentucky Geological Survey to determine the actual flow and monitor the quality of the water once it goes underground.
Currently researchers are working to try to pinpoint areas of the stream that have unusually high levels of sediment and pathogens. Carmen Agouridis, UK biosystems and agricultural engineer, has set up a network of monitoring systems along the aboveground stream to measure these levels. If problem areas are found, researchers will further investigate to pinpoint their source and install best management practices to correct the problem.
Education will also be a big component of the Cane Run project. Signs have been installed along the watershed to increase awareness. Gumbert will be spearheading much of this effort and is already working with organizations, students, and residents in the area to educate them about things they can do to improve their section of the stream.
Guy Cove is in UK’s Robinson Forest. Like Cane Run, it was also an impaired stream, but Guy Cove’s impairments have to do with long-used surface mining and land reclamation practices.
Typically during the mining reclamation process, soil is tightly compacted, preventing successful revegetation of high-value hardwoods that existed before mining. Revegetation is limited to non-native plants, grasses, and trees. Nearby headwater streams are usually filled in with mining spoil—dirt or rock that has been moved in the mining process.
This practice of filling in with mining spoil can greatly affect the water quality, because water can interact with several different minerals in the spoil, including iron, manganese, and sulfate. Flooding is also an issue. Originally the Guy Cove area was mountainous with a forest canopy and a sponge-like ground leaf litter, but it is now compacted and protected only by grasses.
“We recognize there are some problems in mining,” said Richard Warner, UK extension professor and one the project’s researchers, “but we are developing solutions and realizing it takes a systems approach that integrates watershed reforestation and stream restoration to resolve environmental issues.”
Reconstructing a Stream
Carmen Agouridis and Warner, biosystems and agricultural engineers, and Chris Barton, a UK forester, developed a revolutionary concept that could change how mining companies approach reclaimed land. They have reconstructed a nearly mile-long headwater stream and several tributaries, using only on-site materials and native trees and shrubs.
The project was funded through the stream mitigation fund of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. It received crucial support from partners including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Kentucky Division of Water, EPA Region 4, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Office of Surface Mining, and the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources.
Stream reconstruction and the installation of native plant species was completed earlier this year. Researchers will continue to monitor the site for the next several years and after that the site will go into the long-term monitoring system at Robinson Forest.
Researchers believe that if mining companies were to plan out reclamation before they began mining, reconstructing a headwater stream aboveground would not only improve water quality but save companies money by keeping them from having to transport reclamation materials.
“Mining companies have to disturb the land to get to the coal, but with proper planning they could save the materials they move and potentially have all the necessary materials to put right back into the area when they are finished mining,” Barton said.
Several mining companies have expressed interest in the project and are closely monitoring its progress. Researchers already have given several tours to mining groups and others interested in the project. This August, it will be one of the field visits at the annual conference of the Appalachian Region Reforestation Initiative that the state is hosting.
No one person, business or industry is to blame for the state’s water quality problems. Kentucky’s polluted waterways are a result of decades of habit, including giving livestock free access to streams or over-applying pesticides to gardens.
Cleaning up the state’s waterways calls for a concerted effort from all Kentuckians. But UK researchers have laid the groundwork and hope these stream restorations projects serve as local, regional, and national models for stream restoration and improved water quality.