Keeping Kentucky’s Waters Clean

Keeping Kentucky’s Waters Clean



A lot of folks in Kentucky tend to put down this fine state. You know the things they (and you too, maybe) say. I am not going to say them, because my news is good: Kentucky is rich, wealthy, the envy of other states, possessing an abundance of the world’s most valuable resource. Yes of course it’s water, you read the title.

Around the world, shortages of water are the cause of much hardship and ill health. I have a young friend, Ben, who returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan a few months ago, and he was so water-starved that he would stand at the sink in Lexington and just watch the water run. He had learned that relatively clean, plentiful water is a real luxury on this crowded planet. Kentucky has in abundance, what the world most treasures, and the concern is that we are not doing enough to protect it from degradation.

Here’s a couple of startling Kentucky water facts: this state has more miles of waterways -89,400-than any other state except Alaska; and Kentucky is a headwaters state. Yes that’s right, most of our numerous streams and rivers start within the state’s boundaries. What does that mean? It means that we don’t have to deal with states upstream of us, polluting and laying claim to our water. It also means that we are responsible for the quality of our water-we can’t blame water pollution on anyone else, but us Kentuckians.

How good or bad is the quality of waters in our state’s waterways? As you might expect, it varies from place to place, but a good general statement is that Kentucky’s water is in a lot better shape than the laws that are in place to protect it. That’s not a paradox, it’s the simple truth at the heart of a complicated situation: our state’s waterways are legally underprotected.

Hundreds of Kentucky’s beautiful creeks, streams, forks, licks, and lakes are in pretty-good to very-good shape, but the laws protecting them are so weak that polluters can actually get permits from the state to legally dump wastes and chemicals in amounts that can and do destroy their good water quality. The laws are presently too weak to prevent this from happening. Are you wondering “how did this happen?” and “what can be done?” because that is the direction of this piece.

All of Kentucky’s waters are sorted into three main “tiers” of legal protection. About 98.6% of our state’s stream miles are in Tier I, the lowest level of protection. This does not mean that 98.6% of our water is polluted-but it does mean that for 98.6% of our stream miles, it is relatively easy for an industry to obtain a permit from the state Division of Water to legally discharge chemicals, wastes, and metals in amounts right up to the legal maximum allowable. There are about 12,000 permits on the books right now!

The remaining 1.35 percent of our state’s stream miles are assigned to Tier II, for which it is harder to get a discharge permit. A tiny dab of a percent (0.06) is in Tier III, “Outstanding National Resource Waters.” Where are these uppity ONR waters, you ask? They are a portion of the Red River through the Gorge, the Big South Fork of the Cumberland, and the subterranean waters flowing through Mammoth Cave National Park, a total of 30 miles. What does Tier III protection entail? It means that NO degradation of the water quality is allowable. NO discharge permits are issued for these stream segments (although they are allowed upstream and downstream of the protected waterway segments-go figure).

Right now, a number of Kentucky water organizations are attempting to get the water protection laws strengthened. They’d like to see a lot more of our waterways placed into Tier II. Perhaps a thousand of the Tier I streams and creeks have only one water quality problem, such as too much sediment, or too much fecal coliform (“poop,” to you). Either problem is easily solved! But instead, these streams are legally regarded as “open for pollution business,” because they have one problem that makes them less than pristine.

Last November, the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a draft set of regulations that are intended to improve Kentucky’s water quality protection. However, groups such as Kentucky Waterways Alliance, the Sierra Club, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Water Sentinels, Floyd’s Fork Environmental Association, Kentucky Resources Council, Kentucky Heartwood, and Kentucky Riverkeeper are less than impressed. They argue that the new regulations “would leave open to continued pollution all or portions of every major river, stream and lake in this state,” to quote KWA Director Judith Petersen.

The citizens of Kentucky have until March 14 to make their opinions heard on this “Antidegradation Rule,” which in its final form will become a model for other states facing the same situation. Please contact any of the groups listed above if you would like to add your voice to theirs.