Improving water quality

By Lanny Brannock

Department for Environmental Protection

There are days when you don’t need rain to feel wet all over and the air is as molasses. Environmental biologists Katie McKone and Jessica Schuster, know  that feeling all too well as they wade knee deep into the Strodes Creek Watershed in Bourbon and Clark Counties to take water samples, which they’ve been doing for the last 18 months. They’re collecting the necessary data to develop a pollutant reduction strategy, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), with the goal of taking the impacted watershed from polluted to meeting Kentucky water quality standards.   Collecting the necessary data can be difficult, especially when the water is very high or when vegetation surrounding the waterways is more than head high, but it’s an important job because the data gathered could directly affect efforts to help make Kentucky’s waterways cleaner and healthier for all of the Commonwealth’s inhabitants.

Kentucky ranks in the top 15 for miles of navigable water in the lower 48 states. With all those waterways comes the great responsibility that we all share to keep our waters clean because, in one form or another, we all live in a watershed.  A watershed is an area or ridge of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins or seas.  All of Kentucky’s small streams, creeks, rivers and lakes ultimately lead to larger bodies of water like the Ohio River, to the Mississippi River and then on to the Gulf of Mexico.

We rely on many of these bodies of water for our drinking water supply, swimming, fishing and several other purposes. If not properly managed and monitored, refuse, oil, pesticides and fertilizers may end up in the water we use daily.

Water pollution is primarily transported by runoff, which is called non-point source pollution. Point source pollution, on the other hand, is waste released through pipes into waterways from industrial processes and sewage treatment plants and is regulated by the Kentucky Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit process.  No matter what pollutants end up in our waterways or their source, they must be cleaned in water treatment plants before it is consumable.

Kentucky Division of Water’s biologists Schuster and McKone use instruments to measure flow and depth of streams, collect water chemistry samples, bacteria samples, macroinvertebrate samples and measurements to achieve a big-picture story of the Strodes Creek Watershed.  They work with a team who uses their data to calculate a pollutant reduction strategy, a TMDL. For any waterbody on the 303(d), or List of Impaired Waters, a TMDL must be written  according to the Clean Water Act, which is sent to Congress.  A TMDL assesses what’s in the stream, and how much of a particular pollutant that stream can assimilate before it has negative effects on water quality and aquatic life.

“Our goal is to collect data we need so we can understand the sources of the pollutants year round,” said McKone.  “We want these streams to come off the impaired waters list and meet their designated uses again.”

In areas where point source pollution dominates, regulatory programs play a big role in improving and protecting water quality.  For example, a TMDL also ensures that the permits written for the regulated community will meet water quality standards.  These facilities are then obligated to meet the standards contained in their permits or they will be subject to the potential enforcement action, including penalties.

Addressing non-point source pollution can be a greater challenge because there are fewer regulatory programs in place to address runoff.  The agency places an emphasis on educating and partnering with the public and industry to reduce non-point source pollution. Education starts with reaching out to property owners to explain how the waterway is being impacted by activities taking place in the watershed.  The agency also provides landowners with technical assistance and sometimes access to funding to improve the quality of the water running off the property, thereby protecting the environment and the public.

“The sampling we have done so far aims to identify what the problems are, but it doesn’t fix those problems.” said McKone.  “With the sampling we do, we are figuring out if the watershed is healthy or not healthy.  Actually translating that data into change takes work from several sources including the community.  Every little bit of involvement helps.”

Our charge in the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection is to protect the environment. By conducting sampling, developing TMDLs, issuing and enforcing permits and providing education and assistance, we are continuing to improve watersheds across the Commonwealth.

For more information checkout our YouTube channel, especially our links on watersheds at

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