Most Kentuckians accept clean, safe water as a fact of life, as reliable as the sun rising each morning. But water is always on the move, flowing and seeping through many ecosystems. And, each system impacts what finally comes out of the tap.
The University of Kentucky does research at its Robinson Forest in a remote area of Eastern Kentucky to learn how human activity upstream affects everyone, and everything, downstream.
Remote, rugged, isolated, uninhabited for decades, this preserve seems far removed from just about everything. But it’s not. The rain that falls here has a long way to go and many people, plants and animals to nourish.
Chris Barton, a professor of forest hydrology at UK, explained what happens to the water in Cole’s Fork, a stream with headwaters in Robinson Forest.
“So, it goes from here to what’s called Big Mill Seat, Big Mill Seat to Clemons Fork, Clemons Fork to Buckhorn Branch, Buckhorn Branch to Troublesome Creek, Troublesome Creek to the Kentucky River, Kentucky River to the Ohio River, Ohio River to the Mississippi River, and then ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico, so what we do in this watershed potentially affects millions and millions of people.”
Robinson Forest is a natural laboratory where Barton and his colleagues connect the dots human activity upstream in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and life downstream.
This 14-thousand acre research preserve contains the headwaters of streams like Cole’s Fork. It’s a reference point for what a stream’s like when nature’s allowed to call all the shots.
“There’s literally not been much going on in this watershed for 100 years…..it gives us a standard that we can try to achieve when we go out to do water quality improvement projects.”
And that makes it a valuable tool, as the state tries to provide clean water, and maintain the forest’s economic value. The region is rich in coal and hardwoods. And when those resources are mismanaged, Leah MacSwords, the director of Kentucky’s Division of Forestry, admits they can muddy the water.
“There is a balance to insure that we don’t do harvesting in a manner that creates an environmental problem in our rivers and streams and creeks.”
MacSwords’ office issues guidelines on the best management practices for the region’s resources, explained how the work at Robinson Forest helps in developing those guidelines.
“The University of Kentucky has been able to track water quality on that site for 40 years, so they have these pristine waterways and it provides that level of control, it provides this is what a site looks like that has never been harvested....if you study certain impacts then you know that any contamination in those waterways came from that activity.”
With logging, the biggest problem is sediment. Huge equipment churns up soil and turns clear streams murky. Barton’s team has found keeping a buffer zone of vegetation of at least 110 feet between logging operations and a stream reduces soil erosion by 88 percent. That’s twice the current standard but Barton thinks the economic cost won’t be that great.
“It probably doesn’t amount to that much money but you’re providing a lot of environmental benefit.”
Mining poses a different problem, Barton said.
“Inherent in the whole process is you’re blowing up rock and just by the nature of that you’re going to create more total dissolved solids.”
Researchers are trying to figure out how to keep those solids out of the water once the mining is over.
Right now, most mining companies replace the dirt they’ve removed. They then pack the new soil down hard and plant grass. But Barton says the practice can actually increase soil erosion.
“When you do that, you compact it so much that water doesn’t really infiltrate into the soil and it runs across, so you do get a lot of erosion.”
Hoping to improve water quality, Barton’s team is exploring the use of forest vegetation, instead of grass, on reclamation sites.
MacSwords explained the benefits of making the change.
“They slow down some of the runoff … so they insure that a lot of that sediment doesn’t get into the creeks…they also allow that water that percolates through the ground, through all of that debris that’s on the forest floor, providing that filtration system, so the water that makes it down to the ground water….can stay clean.”
Barton’s research provides the data to prove it works.
There are devices along the streams that measure water flow and temperature and, of course, researchers take samples to see what’s in the water. But Barton says nature provides its own indications of a stream’s health.
“There are certain aquatic bugs that live in this stream that are very insensitive to pollution. So there’s things here like certain species of stone flies and mayflies and cattus flies that you’re only going to find in real high water quality resources like this.”
Sometimes it’s hard to understand scientific research but in Robinson Forest, it’s the mayflies that help connect the dots between research upstream and the quality of drinking water used by Lexington residents and other people who live downstream.
WEKU received assistance in producing this series of reports from Erica Peterson of Louisville Public Media.