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Cleaning Up Kentucky's Waterways

by Heidi Bright Parales

The fish are back and the water is cleaner in Taylorsville Lake, 30 miles west of Lexington, thanks to recent efforts of University of Kentucky agricultural extension agents, in partnership with state and federal agencies, working with farmers along the Salt River.

About five years ago, there were practically no fish in Taylorsville Lake and in the Salt River, which fed the lake. The fish were getting sick, the levels of oxygen in the water were low, and phosphorous levels were high. These levels led to the production of too much blue-green algae, which produces toxins, according to Terry Hutchens, UK agricultural extension agent for water quality. "The bass stocked in Taylorsville Lake would not reproduce," he says.

Extension agents began working jointly with agricultural agencies, farmers, schools and the general public through demonstrations and educational programs to encourage the use of better ecological practices. Called Best Management Practices (BMPs), these modern methods prevent unnecessary soil erosion and water pollution, says Curtis Absher, UK's assistant director for agricultural extension.

Jack Godbey, a part-time farmer in Boyle County, learned about BMPs a few years ago from an extension agent, and also had heard about the fish dying in Taylorsville Lake. Godbey invited Hutchens to survey his 190-acre cow/calf operation and to work out a management plan.

The plan involved digging a new pond, repairing an old pond and putting up several thousand feet of fence to keep his cattle out of the creek that ran through his property. This way, he provided his cattle with an alternative water supply and kept them out of the stream, resulting in a more even distribution of waste. He also began a seven-pasture rotational grazing program.

Along with implementing the plan to meet the requirements of the relatively new Kentucky Agriculture Water Quality Act, Godbey says he wanted to keep a step ahead of any potential national Environmental Protection Agency regulations and to improve the quality of his family farm, which he might pass along to his two sons.

The entire project cost about $13,000, including labor, but Godbey had to contribute only about 40 percent of the price tag since he worked with the agents. Godbey says the benefits now include improved water availability without jeopardizing the quality of the creek water that runs through his farm and empties into the Salt River. He also "runs 50-60 head of cattle," about as many as before.

Godbey's new BMPs prevent pollution of public water, bringing him in line with new state requirements, according to Absher, since farmers are now required to develop and implement an agriculture water quality plan.

The concept of BMPs has been around in Kentucky for about 20 years, according to Jeff Stringer, assistant professor of forestry at UK. However, BMPs have been actively implemented only during the past five to 10 years.

Most BMPs have been developed and researched in the coastal states, which have different land variables than Kentucky, which has deep slopes, a limestone subsurface and underground water conduits, says Hutchens.

Because of the differing land characteristics in Kentucky, there is plenty of opportunity for new research specific to implementing BMPs in this state, says Absher. Some research projects are already under way at UK, such as research on nutrient recycling within a pasture system, waste management for wetlands, and waste and its associated bacteria moving from buffered areas into streams.