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Nature-Based Solutions in Kentucky: New Ways to Keep Water and Nutrients on our Farms, in our Gardens, and off our Streets

By Perry Thomas

Next time there’s a rainstorm, take a walk! You can learn a lot about how rainwater moves through your community. Do you see cover crops, swales, or rain gardens designed to capture rainfall and slow erosion?

Scenes like the one below, of Seventy Six Falls delivering sediment into a Clinton County pool, illustrate the need to keep soil and nutrients on our fields, yards, and cityscapes

Sediment flowing down Seventy Six Falls, Clinton County. Photo by Shawn Harville.

Recently, during a walk along the Salt River in West Point, Kentucky, we observed erosion caused by water flowing parallel to the main channel of Bee Branch. The stream flowed muddy brown under a popular walking bridge, into the Salt River and then into the Ohio River. Unfortunately, these kinds of sightings are all too common along Kentucky’s waterways. As soil is carried away from our farms and neighborhoods, it transports nutrients that cause problems downstream, such as excessive growth of aquatic plants and algae, fish kills and harmful algal blooms.

Erosion along Bee Branch in West Point, KY. Photo by Perry Thomas.

Unfortunately, these kinds of sighting are all too common along Kentucky’s waterways.”

Kentuckians can protect downstream neighbors and wildlife by using innovative natural approaches to mitigate floods and prevent erosion. Increasingly, community planners and risk managers transform rural, suburban and urban landscapes into places where stormwater flows into constructed wetlands, vegetated swales or rain gardens rather than directly into waterways or onto streets. In addition to keeping water close by for future use, diverting rain helps keep soils and associated nutrients in place.

As our weather swings between periods of drought and short bouts of intense rain, the need for these kinds of strategies increases. By capturing rainwater and keeping it near at hand, we can help mitigate floods downstream and improve our ability to keep livestock, crops and gardens watered during dry periods. We can also keep soil and nutrients on our farms and in our neighborhoods.

A new guide, published by the Federal Emergency Management Association, calls these kinds of strategies nature-based solutions and defines them as “sustainable planning, design, environmental management and engineering practices that weave natural features or processes into the built environment to build more resilient communities.”

To learn how communities across Kentucky are using nature-based solutions, the Division of Water’s river basin coordinators partnered with members of the Kentucky Association of Mitigation Managers to collect examples from all corners of the commonwealth. With the help of summer intern Hannah Leibman, an environmental engineering major at the University of Cincinnati and resident of Oldham County, the team created an ESRI story map illustrating these examples.

A succulent garden on the roof of a greenhouse at Yew Dell Gardens in Oldham County provides benefits of a green roof while tolerating periods of drought. Looking on is Hannah Leibman, intern with the Division of Water. Image by Perry Thomas.

The Kentucky Nature-based Watershed Solutions Story Map includes a broad suite of best management practices from rural, suburban and urban settings. Strategies range from wetland creation in Fayette County to vegetated swales in Shelby County, forest conservation in Livingston County, stream restoration in Boone County and many more. 

Rural

The Nature Conservancy’s Mantle Rock Nature Preserve and nearby conserved lands protect not only reaches of the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers but also unique biological communities. Historically, the area served as a refuge for members of the Cherokee Nation during the harsh winter of 1838-1839.

Mantle Rock Nature Preserve in Livingston County, KY. Image courtesy of The Nature Conservancy/Mike Wilkinson.

“This Livingston County example highlights the value of good forest stewardship as an important nature-based solution.”

Conserving and managing forestlands often requires private-public partnerships. Partners joining the Nature Conservancy to conserve lands around Mantle Rock include the National Park Service, Cherokee Nation, Trail of Tears Association, University of Kentucky, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission, Livingston County Government, Boy Scouts of America and private landowners. This Livingston County example highlights the value of good forest stewardship as a nature-based solution that not only protects water quality but also provides ancillary benefits such as wildlife habitat protection.

Contour plowing and vegetated swales on Earthwave Farm in Shelbyville are additional examples of rural nature-based solutions. While Kentucky farmers have applied contour plowing and other agricultural best management practices for many generations, the Earthwave Farm crew innovates by incorporating swales and ponds in a system that maximizes the capture and use of rainwater.

Vegetated swales in Shelbyville, Shelby County, KY. Image courtesy of Earthwave Farm.

Suburban

Northern Kentucky Sanitation District Number 1’s campus and public service park includes a suite of stormwater best management practices and highlights their many benefits: native plantings support pollinator species; a bioswale catches and gradually releases rainwater; and trees filter water, sequester carbon, and provide shade. All these nature-based solutions, along with other innovations, protect nearby Banklick Creek.

Northern Kentucky Sanitation District No 1 (SD1) & Public Service Park serves as a showcase for nature-based solutions. Map courtesy of SD1. Key available on the supporting SD 1 Fact Sheet.

Similarly, a demonstration project on the Boone Campus of Gateway Community & Technical College, is designed to showcase nature-based solutions while slowing the flow of stormwater into a tributary of Gunpowder Creek.

Swale revegetation using native seed and live stakes on the Boone Campus of Gateway Community and Technical College. Image courtesy of Boone County Conservation District.

Urban

In Lexington, several nature-based solutions were used to eliminate dangerous flooding of Nicholasville Road that occurred during heavy rain events and was responsible for the drowning deaths of two University of Kentucky students.

In Louisville, the Beargrass Creek Watershed Master Plan resulted in the creation of community-wide rain garden and rain barrel installation programs, sponsored by the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD). Rain gardens serve as natural interceptors of stormwater as it flows from rooftops through gutters, and rain barrels help collect water for use during dry spells. Both rain gardens and rain barrels help keep water out of storm drains.

A restored stream in Lexington, Fayette County, KY. Image courtesy of the University of Kentucky.

During summer 2021, Louisville MSD contributed a rain garden demonstration to the Kentucky State Fair exhibit titled Ripple Effects: Exploring the Confluence of Art, Culture, and the Environment Along Our Waterways. MSD’s rain garden illustrated how nature-based solutions can protect both the beauty and value of lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, and wetlands in Kentucky.

Louisville MSD created a rain garden at the 2021 Kentucky State Fair. Image by Lori Rafferty.

DIY Rain Garden Project

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