Government report gives poor grades to stream’s water quality and habitats
By Frank Johnson | The Kentucky Standard
A report card released Friday from the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection shows Nelson County has some homework to do.
The Division of Water spent the last year evaluating the health of the Cox Creek watershed in northern Nelson County. The area’s final grade: C-.
The stream and its tributaries received poor marks in many of the eight categories the study measured, particularly due to high levels of E. Coli in the water, a decreasing numbers of fish and bugs, and the substantial loss of habitat and natural cover.
The results of the study surprised farmer Oliver Rodgers, who said he has invested heavily in measures to help limit the environmental impact of his farming operations.
“We are spending a lot of money on our end to protect the streams and put the nutrients where they need to be,” Rodgers said. “In a lot of respects, I think we are doing more than we have in the past.”
The area has historically been home to some of the county’s largest farms and with the planned expansion of U.S. 31E to a four-lane highway, it’s also a region set to experience a lot of growth.
“There is a delicate balance between promoting economic development and protecting our water resources,” said Katie McKone, a state environmental biologist who helped compile the report. “It’s hard to put a price tag on clean water, but it’s a goal we are compelled to pursue.”
Tommy Hart, Nelson County Kentucky Farm Bureau Board of Directors president, said that is a goal shared by many farmers in the area who are engaged in an ongoing improvement in farming practices.
“Farmers are, for the most part, pretty good stewards of the land,” Hart said.
For his part, Rodgers has invested about $40,000 to build a new feed facility for his cattle that will help prevent any animal waste from entering Cox Creek.
On a different farm, Rodgers has received help from the Nelson County Soil Conservation office in erecting a fenced barrier around the stream to allow it to return to a more natural state.
“That’s how serious I am about the streams,” Rodgers said.
Despite these efforts, the report shows progress in restoring water quality in the Cox Creek watershed is still a long way downstream.
Twelve points of the creek and its branches — six of which are in Nelson County — were monitored for eight signs of water quality and biological health. Grades were given for each and then an average score compiled from the results.
In one of these areas, the level of E. Coli in the water, a majority of the sites received an F.
“From May to November 2009, eight of the 11 sites had E. Coli concentrations above the safe standard for swimming 80 to 100 percent of the time,” the report said. “These levels may cause gastrointestinal illness if the water is swallowed or infection if contact is made with an open sore or wound.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, E. Coli is a bacteria that lives in the stomachs of ruminants such as cattle and causes diseases in humans when feces from such animals is ingested.
The report also noted substantial losses of what is called the “riparian zone.” The riparian zone is the land adjacent to a stream that has distinct soil types and plant communities, which aid in absorbing water and shading the stream.
For an area to receive an A, it must be at least 18 yards wide on each side of the stream. In the eight sites were the riparian zone was studied, the Cox Creek watershed received two Fs, four Ds and two Cs.
The report said the loss of the habitat provided by a large riparian zone is harmful to the ecological cycle of streams. It results in less bacteria for insects to eat, which in turn means less insects for fish to munch on.
However, McKone said these two problems are just some of the many factors that affect water quality.
“The problem is that there is never really any one issue,” McKone said. “It’s hard to say if you fix this one thing, it’ll get better. The goal of the report is to show the overarching issues that affect water quality.”
The information is pulled from a year-long collection of data conducted in 2009 about the creek and the tributaries that feed into it in northern Nelson County and nearby Spencer and Bullitt counties. The study was triggered by an initial evaluation that showed Cox Creek did not meet the standards for activities such as swimming and fishing required by the Clean Water Act.
McKone said the “Health Report” is part of a pilot program developed by the Kentucky Division of Water to better communicate its findings to the public and increase awareness of the problems in Kentucky’s waterways. The Cox Creek Health Report is the first to be publicly released.
The report does not come with any regulatory requirements or force government, business or individuals to make specific changes.
For more information Kentucky’s rivers, streams and creeks, visit the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection Division of Water at water.ky.gov.