Earth Healing The Health of the Bluegrass Is The Triangle Really Golden

The Health of the Bluegrass:
Is the Triangle Really Green?

Published by Earth Healing in cooperation with
EcoPerspectives, a project of Earth Island Institute





Problems with Water Quality and Supply

            The Kentucky Division of Water assesses rivers and streams on a rotating basis with attention given to specific water basins in specific years. As stated in its 2008 Integrated Report to Congress on Water Quality in Kentucky (1), the division has in recent years assessed for  primary contact use, which includes swimming, 4,493 miles of waterways, 3,148 miles of which or 70% were found not to support primary contact use.  For warm water aquatic habitat it has assessed 9,170 miles, 4,400 of which or 48% were found not to support aquatic habitat use.  For the six uses that it most commonly assessed considered together (aquatic life, primary and secondary contact recreation, and drinking water), it found only 51% of all waters assessed to be fully supporting.  Kentucky has some 90,000 miles of rivers and streams, so the assessed segments represent only a fraction of what exists.  (Volunteers assess segments of certain rivers and streams, because of the incompleteness of the state program). 

            The Bluegrass Region encompasses parts of three river basins: the Salt River Basin in the west, the Kentucky River Basin in the center, and the Licking River Basin in the east.  For the Salt River Basin as a whole, 472 miles were assessed for primary contact recreation and only 68 miles (14%) were found to be fully supporting; 1071 miles were assessed for aquatic life and only 664 miles (62%) were found to be fully supporting.  In the Kentucky River Basin as a whole, 903 miles were assessed for primary contact recreation and only 209 miles (44%) were found to be fully supporting; 1836 miles were assessed for aquatic life and only 1054 miles (57%) were found to be fully supporting.  In the Licking River Basin as a whole, 476 miles were assessed for primary contact recreation and only 149 miles (31%) were found to be fully supporting; 756 miles were assessed for aquatic life and only 390 miles (52%) were found to be fully supporting.

            The 2008 report lists the leading causes of nonsupport of uses as 1) sedimentation/siltation, 2) fecal coliform + E. coli (pathogen indicators), 3) nutrient/eutrophication biological indicators; 4) habitat assessment (streams) (pollution) and 5) unknown causes.  The leading sources of these impairments are 1) habitat related (loss of riparian habitat, channelization, stream bank modifications/destabilization, site clearance, dredging, habitat modification other than hydro modification , 2) agriculture, 3) urban or municipal (discharges from municipal separate storm sewer systems, sanitary sewer overflows, etc.),  4) unknown sources,  5) mining, and 6) residential related (on-site treatment systems such as septic systems, etc.).  All of these sources except mining are present in the Bluegrass.

            Among the many specific streams of concern in the Bluegrass are Banklick Creek and Three Mile Creek in northern Kentucky; Floyds Fork in eastern Jefferson County; and Town Branch and Wolf Run, which both flow north from Lexington to feed South Elkhorn Creek.  Fecal coliform bacteria are prominent in the contaminants of each.

Fish advisory

In April 2000, the Kentucky departments for Public Health, Environmental Protection, and Fish and Wildlife Resources issued a state-wide mercury advisory for all fresh-water fish from Kentucky waters, including the Ohio River.  Women of child-bearing age and children six years of age and younger should eat no more than one meal a week of freshwater fish.  This advisory is still in effect.  (The EPA does not issue fish consumption advisories.  Those come from individual states.)

 In humans, particularly fetuses and young children, mercury appears to impact the nervous system.  A recent study conducted by the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio found a statistically significant link between industrial releases of mercury and increased rates of autism (2).

Contamination in Metropolitan Areas

The metropolitan areas of Louisville, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, and Lexington make major contributions to the impairment of Kentucky rivers and streams.  In recent years the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sued the Louisville and Jefferson County Sewer District (MSD), Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky, and the City of Lexington because of water quality problems.  In each case unauthorized releases of sewage or of a mixture of sewage and storm water have repeatedly occurred, contaminating rivers and streams. 

            In Louisville certain “combined” sewers carry storm water and sewage to a treatment plant.  Other sewers carry only sewage.  In heavy rains both types have overflowed. The volume of contaminated water from the combined pipes has average 4.5 billion gallons annually.  Unauthorized discharges of untreated sewage from the separated system have averaged 175 million gallons a year, but in 2004 totaled 500 million gallons. The releases have affected water quality in the Ohio River and its tributaries.

            The Kentucky Environmental Protection Cabinet, the US Department of Justice, and the EPA reached a settlement with MSD in April 2005.  By the terms of the consent decree MSD must propose and implement actions to bring its combined sewer overflows into compliance with water quality discharges and to eliminate unauthorized discharges from its sanitary sewers.  The worst discharges, 75% of the total, must be addressed by 2013 at the latest (3).

It appears, however, that this consent decree did not end MSD’s problem with the US EPA.  According to the Courier-Journal, the EPA is now monitoring overflows of untreated sewage from two sewage treatment plants in eastern Jefferson County, Jeffersontown and Floyds Fork.  Apparently as a result of the monitoring, MSD is no longer allowing new hook ups to these plants, thus slowing construction in the area (4). 

Northern Kentucky has a similar problem. Sewer District No. 1 is responsible for collecting and treating sewage from thirty-seven municipalities within Boone, Campbell, and Kenton Counties.  Sewer systems in the district have been overwhelmed during heavy rainfalls, resulting in discharges of combined sewage and storm water totaling over 850 million gallons annually and overflows of sanitary sewers averaging 82 million gallons annually.  As in the Louisville area, the overflows have negatively impacted the Ohio River and its tributaries. 

The US Department of Justice and the EPA announced a Clean Water Act settlement with Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky in October 2005.  District No. 1 will address its problems by developing and implementing plans for each of the four watersheds in its area (5). 

Lexington likewise has a problem with releasing untreated sewage into rivers and streams.  It also has a problem with raw sewage entering homes within the city.  In February 2008 the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council approved a settlement agreement with the EPA, which had sued Lexington in 2006 over violations of the Clean Water Act.  In August 2008 the federal judge who had to approve the agreement before it could be considered final ordered the city and the EPA to reopen negotiations.  US District Judge Karl Forester agreed with critics of the agreement who had charged that too much of a $425,000 penalty was to go to the federal EPA and that it was not just to penalize heavily current residents for the mistakes of past city administrators (6).    According to the terms of the agreement, the city will be required in the next eleven to thirteen years to eliminate all sewage overflows, complete a system-wide assessment of the sewer system and turn the Blue Sky Wastewater Treatment Plant in southeast Fayette County, originally a privately-owned facility, into a pump station that will move sewage to one of the city’s other treatment plants. The city also must reduce chronic flooding in neighborhoods.  Among its other projects, the city has agreed to restore Cane Run Creek in Coldstream Park to help protect Royal Spring, the main source of the city of Georgetown’s water (7).  Whether the Lexington consent decree solves the city’s wastewater problem depends, as do the other consent decrees, on its implementation.

Lack of Regional Cooperation on Water Supplies

            The Inner Bluegrass region has long been plagued by droughts and floods.  What is now known as the Bluegrass Water Supply Commission, made up of nine municipalities in the region, including Lexington, was formed as the result of a severe drought in 1999, to try to find a regional solution to the matter of supply. The Commission gradually developed a plan to build a plant at Pool 3 on the Kentucky River, north of Frankfort, in Owen County to treat water from the river and a grid of pipes to take the treated water to the various municipalities. Kentucky-American Water Company, which supplies water to Lexington and parts of nearby counties for a time appeared to cooperate with the commission. In 2002 the German utility RWE AG, Germany’s biggest electricity producer, purchased American Water, the parent company of Kentucky-American.   

            In 2006, stating that it was tired of waiting for the commission to act, RWE/Kentucky-American stopped meeting with the regional commission, and in 2007 it went to the Public Service Commission with a plan to build a treatment plant on the site that had been chosen by the Bluegrass Water Supply Commission and to pipe the water thirty-one miles to Lexington.  It invited other commission members to purchase the water, but they had wanted to build their own plant in order to cut costs.  When in 2008 the Public Service Commission authorized Kentucky American to go ahead with its plant and pipeline, Winchester decided to build its own plant to treat water for Winchester; and Frankfort decided to supplement its supply by piping water from Louisville.  Thus the consortium and regional plans for cooperation appear to be at an end.

Groundwater in Jefferson County

            Withdrawal of groundwater for geothermal heating and cooling systems is lowering the level of an aquifer beneath western and northern Jefferson County.  Entities who want to withdraw more than 10,000 gallons of water a day must obtain a permit from the state, which has issued 700 of them.  Among them is Galt House.  It pumps water for a geothermal system, which it shares with the Waterfront Plaza office towers.  The water is at a constant temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  After it has given up its heat or been circulated for cooling, it is released into the Ohio River. (A geothermal system may instead of releasing water above ground, reinject it into the ground after use.)   In two years the level of groundwater under Galt House has dropped eighteen feet.  The Kentucky Geological survey does not have the funding to track groundwater levels routinely (8).   

Rural areas

            Rural areas that are not connected to water and sewage lines also have water quality and supply problems.  The Kentucky Geological Service maintains a repository of data on groundwater, which can be accessed online at .  The Service also draws on the repository to answer queries from the public regarding wells and springs, and is preparing a “Summary and Evaluation of Groundwater Quality in Watersheds of the Kentucky River, Salt River, Licking River , Big Sandy River, Little Sandy River, and Tygarts Creek”  (9). 

Potential sources of contamination of private wells include “the application of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers to crops and lawns, animal grazing and feeding operations, illegal dumps (such as in a sinkhole) and improperly constructed or maintained septic systems.  In addition, some naturally occurring chemicals, such as iron and manganese, can degrade water quality” (10).      The Groundwater Branch of the Division of Water offers technical assistance to well owners with water quality problems.  As an alternative to wells, cisterns, which were used in the Bluegrass for many years, are still a viable source of water, if they are properly maintained.  Where water is scarce, composting toilets are a means of conservation. 

                                                            --Mary Byrd Davis

1.  The report is available online at  In this section we draw on Volume 1, part 4, Appendix A and Volume 1, part 3.

2.  “Study Links Autism Risk to Distance from Power Plants, Other Mercury Releasing Sources,” Medical News Today, April 25, 2008, online at

3.  Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet.  “Governor Ernie Fletcher Announces Settlement on Sewage Overflows in Louisville” [Press release], April 25, 2005.

4.  James Bruggers, “2 Wastewater Plants Found Lacking,” Courier-Journal, April 5, 2008, p. 1A.

5. U.S. EPA Region 4: Southeast, “Clean Water Act Agreement Announced with the Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky” [Press release], October 7, 2005.

6.  Andy Mead, “City Sewer Agreement Thrown Out,” Lexington Herald-Leader, August 9, 2008, p. 1A.

7.  Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, “Consent Decree at a Glance” [Press release], February 19, 2008, available online at  

8.  James Bruggers, “Scientists Raise Concerns about Louisville Resource,” Courier-Journal, November 23, 2007, p. 1A—photocopy.

9.  The summary is announced on the Kentucky Geological Survey Web site at, accessed August 1, 2008, as appearing “shortly.”

10.  Division of Water, “Water Well Related Concerns,” available online at, updated March 11, 2007.


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