Fixing Troubled Waters

by Scott Vander Ploeg

Tradewater and Lower Green River, Western Kentucky

“We used your data to target around eighteen sites in our county that needed mediation,” said Peyton Adams, the local EPA officer charged with water protection in my part of Kentucky. “I took your data to my superiors, and said, ‘If the public is finding these problems, seems like we ought to do something about them,’ and they agreed.” He added, “I think you frightened them a little.”

That was only about six years after our Watershed Watch program had been in operation. I had been the Chair of the volunteer Steering Committee for the last five of those years, and continued in that role for another eight. By then, I estimate that we had helped fix another score of instances where pollution or infrastructure needed correcting in my county. 

An older fellow named Ray started as the Steering Committee Chair but gave it up after the first year. I guess it was too much for him. I had not planned on leading the group, but, as is typical, leadership develops in a vacuum. A lot of people feel that it isn’t possible for an individual to do much to make a difference in this world, but I am here to attest to the fact that this is not true and that I helped improve and protect the region where I lived. I’m proud of my efforts and think that this involvement was one of the best uses of my time, ever. 

We were the Tradewater and Lower-Green Watershed Watch, or TLGWW, a volunteer-led collection of farmers and residential land owners who wanted to know the answer to the simple question: “How clean is my water?” We covered eleven counties and parts of another seven in mostly rural Western Kentucky. Of the eight groups under the banner of Watershed Watch in Kentucky, ours was the largest and also the last to be offered the opportunity to develop a volunteer program. If my county saw at least thirty problems corrected, multiply that number of improvements by twelve or more and you can see how much of an impact we had in the TLGWW region.

The Kentucky Division of Water’s Ken Cook showed up in 1999, asking if there were any individuals who would like to get involved in a water testing program. His department offered to cover the first year’s costs, including training, supplies, and a full battery of chemical assays, which tested for a range of elements and compounds, such as lead, zinc, and nitrates. After that, it was up to us to seek funding and receive nominal support from the state volunteer organization. Eventually we would get funding from two different county fiscal courts, as well as contributions from other entities. Ken told us that we were the last area in the state to be developed because he thought he wouldn't find enough volunteer support. We lived in big coal country. I had moved to the area eleven years earlier and felt that his low opinion of us needed to be disproven.

I had taken a college teaching job in Hopkins County, the town of Madisonville, roughly forty minutes south of Evansville, Indiana, and roughly forty minutes north of Hopkinsville, Kentucky; Paducah, Kentucky lies about ninety minutes to the west, Elizabethtown ninety minutes to the east. Owensboro, then the third largest city in the state is to the northeast, and Bowling Green, which grew to replace Owensboro as the third largest, is to the southeast. Nashville, Tennessee is a bit more than ninety minutes mostly to the south-south-east. The lands here consist of low rolling hills and flat planes, the geologic area partly karst, meaning there is water flowing underground, as well as above. Mammoth Cave is just beyond our watershed coverage area, in the Upper Green River Watershed. 

In describing the state, I often said that when Daniel Boone climbed up the Cumberland Gap to the east, and stared at the land before him to the west, Kentucky, he probably cursed himself for not bringing his waders. We have a very rich network of streams and rivers, and, though it isn’t probably true, the belief circulated among us that we have more miles of streams than any other of the contiguous United States. Boone would have had to cross a lot of water to get to Fort Harrodsburg, near the center. 

Ken invited the initial group of people from our area to attend a training session near Florence, Kentucky, just south of Cincinnati, Ohio, up from the confluence of the Licking River with the Ohio River. My friend Sue Ann and I drove up for the day. The training started with power-point slide shows of water testing protocols: how to collect samples and how to do the stream-side chemical assessments for pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, and turbidity. I’m not afraid of new words, but this was pretty serious water terminology. We learned about the epifaunal substrate and what constituted higher or lower quality. We were instructed on the three taxa of benthic macroinvertebrates—bugs in the water. We studied coliform bacteria levels, and later E. coli. We learned about herbicides that farmers put on the fields and the animal waste when it rains—i.e., the runoff that goes into the streams—our streams, the ones we would be testing. 

At some point late in the day, we met at a tributary of the Licking River and they demonstrated a variety of collection techniques with the Licking Volunteers. I quipped that I liked Licking Volunteers, but nobody laughed (out loud). We were thus trained sufficiently to become water-testers. Later I would take additional training to become a volunteer-trainer myself. I wasn’t a science-based “water nerd,” but Ken said I had “the gift of the gab,” and therefore qualified. 

Like a few counties around us that were more notorious, Muhlenberg County for instance, my county had suffered from a long history of mining extraction. My town had been lumped together with many others as a “dirty little coal town.” Hopkins County had been both strip- and- deep- mined, so that the available land not in use was either undermined or hollowed out and fractured by heavy machinery. The county economic development officials had a big problem. Nobody wants to build on stripped land, nor above an abandoned mine. 

Linda, a friend who happened to be a miner, lived on land that was known to have been undermined. Her house exploded one day when she was at work, due to a build-up of methane from the mine below, which some used as a sewer rather than pay for hook up to the city or for a septic system. It was presumed the methane found its way to her water heater gas pilot light. She lost her house and quite a few pets in the conflagration. 

One of the streams that Sue Anne tested is named Copper Creek, for the color of the rocks and streambed that had turned orange due to acidic waters coming from a nearby mining impoundment. As the rain percolates through the containment, it picks up iron filings and other metals, which produce sulfuric acid as the iron oxidizes. When the water pours out of the sides of the containment, and runs into the creek, it turns the water significantly acidic, at four to three on the scale. The nearby chicken houses also contribute to the water in her stream, but fortunately the acid kills off the bacteria from chicken waste runoff. It smells odd, like something dead and putrefying. 

One of the volunteers, a nun from a retirement facility near Owensboro, at the Ursaline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, happened to be testing down from a farm that included a hog production component. Liquid hog waste sat in containment lagoons and was supposed to be hauled off for use as field manure or otherwise sent to packaging facilities. Instead, the farmer had allowed a good deal of the smelly goo to run off into the stream. Here’s a clue: if the water is brownish, it can’t be good. There were places we found where the water was so tainted it wasn’t certain if the water could ever be purified for human use of any sort. 

I had three sites I tested for several years. One was upstream from a sizeable wetlands area on Eagle Creek, while another was at that same wetland’s output stream, and a third was next to a youth athletic association baseball field. Runoff from above the watershed tended to carry a lot of contaminants, both bacterial and herbicidal, but they were mostly absorbed by the wetlands the stream ran through. After a good rainfall, it would not have been good for little Johnny to retrieve a ball from Greasy Creek, because the cattle manure created hefty bacteria counts. 

Our testing year ran in a predictable pattern. We trained new recruits in the spring, usually April. They chose where they wanted to test, though the science team tended to offer recommendations. In early May, we had our first test of the year, and in addition to our standard battery of assays, we also collected samples in dark glass containers for evidence of herbicides. In mid-July, we ran a similar collection for bacterial counts. In mid-September, when the water tended to be less available, we ran samples for chemical issues, particularly total nitrogen, though sometimes for lead and other elemental substances. 

All of the watersheds followed the calendar above, thereby providing a kind of snap-shot of the entire state’s water quality. The state’s entire Division of Water could put maybe fifty of their staff in the field at any one time. Our volunteers across the state numbered ten times that. 

The data was managed by one or more of our science types, and we simply made it available to anyone who was interested. We had no other agenda, and were not trying to find bad-guys—generally people who were avoiding spending money by treating the water like a toilet. A truth we all came to understand is that everybody lives downstream from someone else. In late fall or early spring, we gathered to review the data presented by our science-advisory sub-committee. Based on our data and our funding, we made decisions as a group about our goals for the next year. 

The Sierra Club established a program that we joined because of the funding they offered. They were called the Water Sentinels, and they did not shy away from looking for particular problems. Lee and Aloma Dew, in Owensboro, became deeply involved. Lee was a retired professor from Kentucky Wesleyan College and became a half-time paid staffer for the Sierra Club. He had more than a dozen sites he tested, and he ran focused studies on particular locations where a point-source polluter could be identified, such as the aforementioned hog farmer. At one point, when asked by the local press about the water quality in a city park, he mentioned that the E. coli wasn’t terribly high, and the city immediately sent a team to wrap yellow hazard tape around the park. Again, the TLGWW did not seek problems, so we weren’t stigmatized by what the Sentinels were doing. 

The number of our volunteers fluctuated from year to year. At one point there were at least forty-four of us, but I think we may have had upward of sixty at first. It was reassuring to find others in my region as concerned as I was over what bad actors were doing to our natural resources. Unlike some of the watersheds that had more significant urban impacts, and therefore more contentious legal implications, we were not entangled by litigation. Ken later confided with us that of all the watershed groups ours was the one that was operating according to his vision. 

I felt vindicated. More importantly, the local waters were cleaner now, and though it was a side goal, I had satisfied one of Ken’s objectives: I had been reunited with nature and was now acutely aware of the waters on which our lives depend. The current droughts out West are a lesson for us all. We must protect our environment. If we do, we are protecting our neighbors and ourselves. 

Scott Vander Ploeg, Ph. D., professed English/Humanities until early retirement in 2019. In addition to his scholarly work on Donne, Milton, Shakespeare, and contemporary authors such as Kingsolver, Franzen, and Mason, he recorded regional NPR essays and wrote a newspaper column. Former Executive Director of the Kentucky Philological Association, he is an amateur thespian, a jazz drummer, and a Sifu in Tai Chi.