The Licking River begins with a whimper on its 300-mile plus journey north from headwaters in the mountains of Kentucky to its crescendo as it converges with the Ohio River at metro Cincinnati. Veteran reporter Andy Mead undertook his journey in an aluminum canoe, braving the elements on and off over more than a year, to experience himself the good, the bad, the ugly and the spectacular of a river that runs through nearly every culture, geography, economy, environment and society known to its home state. Along the way he talked to dozens of experts – from ecologists, scientists and environmentalists to historians, farmers and fisherman – and met dozens of real Kentuckians whose lives are entwined with the river. Thanks to support from the Northern Kentucky University Ecological Stewardship Institute, the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism, the UK Scripps Howard First Amendment Center and KyForward.com for making possible the story of this incredible river.
The Licking River: A 300-mile journey as a river meanders from mountains to a thriving metropolis
The upper Licking River cuts a winding path through rocky, wooded terrains as it spills out of Eastern Kentucky on a 300-mile journey to the Ohio River. (Photo By Andy Mead)
By Andy Mead
KyCPSJ Senior Reporting Fellow
WEST LIBERTY – In the spring, the headwaters of the Licking River are filled with wood ducks and their broods of ducklings.
If the mother duck senses danger, she scoots across the water, thrashing violently as if trying to take flight with a broken wing. Her goal: To make herself an enticing sacrificial target, leading a potential predator away from her babies.
I saw this happen over and over as I put-putted down the Licking in an aluminum canoe with a motor on the back. The mama ducks could not know that my traveling companion and I posed no threat.
A mother duck begins to fake a broken wing to draw attention to herself and away from her babies. As these photos show, it is a common sight along the Licking River. (Photos by Andy Mead)
We were there to take in the beauty of the river. We wanted to know about the challenges it faces on its 300-plus-mile-long journey from the mountains to the region’s largest metropolitan area.
At the helm was Ken Cooke, a retired Kentucky Division of Water employee who knows a lot about boats and rivers, including this one.
The trip was winding, with the sun constantly moving about the sky as we rounded bend after bend. Stretches of deeper, slow-moving water were punctuated by shallower spots where gravel banks narrowed the river and the flow increased to riffles and a few small rapids. It was, of course, all downhill. We dropped 310 feet over the course of the trip.
Along the way we saw many ducks and ducklings. We also saw graceful great blue herons, hawks, owls, kingfishers, wild turkeys and – our biggest surprise – at least four American bald eagles. It turns out that the Licking is listed as a new hot spot for the national symbol.
We saw deer and muskrat, as well as the footprints of raccoons. At one spot a coon had apparently dug into a turtle nest, leaving nothing but a small hole and broken shells.
We saw mussel shells, and learned that the Licking has one of the most diverse mussel populations anywhere and, contrary to trends almost everywhere else, one in which the number of species is becoming more diverse. We also learned that muskrats seem to favor a particular endangered species of mussel. It would be a federal crime for a human to harm a fanshell mussel, but the muskrat only obeys the laws of nature.
Alas, we were somewhat disappointed that we did not see a single black bear. They, like eagles, are making a comeback along the Licking and in other parts of Kentucky.
We saw too much trash: motor oil bottles, hair spray cans, milk jugs, glass jars with lids (that made them buoyant), broken coolers, a motorcycle helmet, a soccer goal. The single most-common trashy item was the plastic soft drink bottle. Most of them probably had been tossed out of a car or truck window into a roadside ditch before being washed into a creek and then the river. There was a smaller but significant number of old refrigerators, washing machines and other discarded appliances. And tires, tires, tires. We should have kept a running count of tires.
We frequently were splashed by spray as we moved through riffles and small rapids, but didn’t worry much about contact with the water until near the end of our journey. We did not see water that appeared to the naked eye to be polluted. But we knew that some tributaries and parts of the main stem are clean and some are not, and that the water quality improvements being made are expensive and slow.
You would not want to drink untreated water from the Licking anywhere along its route, but if you did, it likely would taste somewhat salty. Marc Hult, a retired U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who lives beside the Licking in Covington, said that’s because the river is fed by groundwater that was an ocean 450 million years ago.
The river itself, and a number of places along its course, contain the word “lick,” because the salty water left deposits that attracted animals as far back as when wooly mammoths and ground sloths roamed the land more than 10,000 years ago.
In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson sent Gen. William Clark to collect prehistoric animal bones from what now is Big Bone Lick State Park. The mission has been called the first paleontological expedition financed by the young government of the United States.
Hult let me taste a few granules of salt he had distilled from the waters of Big Bone Creek. It had a smoky bite to it.
The head of navigation
We began our journey by consulting with folks at the Magoffin County Historical Society. The Licking begins as a spring bubbling from beneath a rock on the southern end of the county, and the society office is beside the river in Salyersville.
Jeremy D. Shea, a graduate student in the public history program at Northern Kentucky University, researched the history of Licking River for this project. He found that early explorer Thomas Walker, who came into the Kentucky wilderness through the Cumberland Gap, arrived at the Licking at what would become Salyersville on June 2, 1750. He found Native Americans already living there, at a place called Elk Lick.
Walker is often cited as the first person of European descent to “discover” the Licking. Shea noted that the French cartographer Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’ Anville had labeled the river as “Salitik” on a map published in 1746.
The folks in present-day Salyersville told us that much of the upper river was narrow and clogged with trees blown down by the many storms that have moved through the area in recent years. We drove along the river and, from what we could see at crossings, they were right. So, in early May, Ken and I tried another tact. We put our canoe in at Twenty-Six Boat Ramp just above Cave Run Lake, and went upriver, against the current, in search of what we called “the head of navigation.”
We were in a 17-foot aluminum canoe with a 14-year-old, 3.5 horsepower Nissan motor on the back. A prime goal on this first leg, as well as the rest of the trip, was not to capsize with our camping gear, food, phones and cameras. Working against us were submerged logs, fallen trees, logjams, gravel bars and many riffles and small rapids.
We declared West Liberty the start of our journey, turned around and pointed the canoe in the general direction of the far distant Ohio River.
Near West Liberty we saw evidence of the tornado that ripped through the area two years earlier. In downtown West Liberty the twister demolished buildings. On the riverbank, it left shattered, broken tree trunks, some of them still wrapped in contorted tin ripped from the roofs of barns.
In Morgan County, near West Liberty, Ky., damage is still noticeable along the river bank from a devastating tornado that ripped through the area. (Photo by Andy Mead)
The Licking River is marred in places by accumulations of discarded trash and bottles likely tossed in a roadside ditch before being washed into a creek and then the river. (Photo by Andy Mead)
Old refrigerators, washing machines and other discarded appliances are common along the river, as well as an abundance of old tires (Photo by Andy Mead)
Much of the Licking River offers an abundance beautiful greenery along its banks. (Photo by Andy Mead)
A waterfall from one of the many tributaries feeding the Licking River in Morgan County, Ky. (Photo by Andy Mead)
An old bridge abuttment along the river bank in Morgan County, Ky. (Photo by Andy Mead)
A great blue heron sits on its nest in a rookery along the Licking River in Morgan County. (Photo by Andy Mead)
A Canada goose navigating the upper river. (Photo by Andy Mead)
Sunshine and shade, a boat, fishing tackle. This couple on the upper Licking River know how to spend a spring day. (Photo by Andy Mead)
Large boulders are at the water's edge at some spots on the upper Licking River. (Photo by Andy Mead)
The scenery was, for the most part, beautiful, with lush greenery along the banks. At times the trees arched across the water so far that they formed a canopy. In many places, large rocks reached the water’s edge. In others, we could see rock cliffs through the trees.
Like other rivers in the state, an early commercial use of the Licking was to float logs from forests to sawmills. Most logs are now hauled on trucks. But we saw evidence of unwise logging along the river. At one spot, a logging road reached right down to the bank, taking away a buffer strip and inviting erosion. At another, beech trees had been cut close to the bank, perhaps to allow more sunlight to reach an adjacent farm field.
As we got closer to the upper end of Cave Run Lake, we saw our first eagle. We weren’t surprised. Eagles had been hanging around the lake for a while; what may have been a first-ever nest in the area was spotted a decade ago. There would be more eagles, and surprising eagle news, farther downriver.
Although most people who fish Cave Run are in search of crappie, the lake also is widely known for its muskie, or muskellunge, fishing. Residents say fishermen catch the freshwater giants measuring 40 or 42 inches “any day of the week.” (Photo By Andy Mead)
Cave Run Lake, past and present
For our trip down Cave Run Lake, we used a 15-foot aluminum fishing boat with a 15-horsepower Johnson outboard that was 34 years old.
“It’s an older Johnson, but they’re bulletproof,” Ken said as we got under way.
Dogwoods were blooming on the steep terrain along the shore. The lake is surrounded by knobby hills ideal for mounting cell phone towers. Ken said his iPhone reception was better on the lake than at his house in South Lexington.
Cave Run used to look like the rest of the Licking River – narrow and winding. To provide a measure of flood protection for people who live downstream, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started building a dam across the river in the mid 1960s. By the early 1970s, the new lake was fat and somewhat less winding.
Cave Run Lake, a popular fishing, boating, camping and hiking destination, is the result of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam constructed in the 1960's to control the flow of the Licking River. (Photo by Andy Mead)
Water flowing from Cave Run Lake is regulated to reduce downstream flooding. The lake flooded 8,000 acres, displacing 275 families and requiring therelocation of a school, a church and 2,108 graves. (Photo by Andy Mead)
People who lived in or near the 8,270 acres to be submerged were moved out. Much of the land around the lake now is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Frank Bodkin, a forest service archaeologist, said his research into records of the U.S. Corps of Engineers and old newspapers shows that about 275 families were dislocated. Also moved, he said, were a church, a school, 2,108 graves, 45 miles of roads, 67 miles of power lines and 29 miles of telephone lines.
A reunion of the people who moved is held each August. Old photos are brought out and people swap stories. The number who attend is gradually dwindling.
“The many fond memories the former residents have for their former ancestral homes can never be replaced or forgotten,” said Bodkin, who attends the reunions.
One of those residents, Carolyn Sue Cogswell, a retired teacher, was born in what was called the Cogswell community, near what is now the Twin Knobs Recreation Area. Ken and I camped there on the first leg of our trip. Cogswell was established in the mid-1870s, Carolyn Cogswell said, and at one time had a grocery and a post office. The farm where she grew up is now under water. She was 17 when the farm was sold.
She takes a dim view of the forced relocations: “It was devastating for all of us,” she said. “Our life was never the same.”
Today, the lake is where the most people interact with the Licking. There are houseboats, sailboats, and fishing boats. People come to the area to camp, hike and picnic. The Forest Service estimates that 320,000 to 350,000 use one of its campgrounds around the lake between Memorial Day and Labor Day each year.
Joy Brown, executive director of Morehead Tourism, said the entire region benefits from money spent by people attracted to the lake. While she didn’t have hard numbers to back that up, Brown offered an article from The Morehead News about how hard the economy was hit when some access to the lake was curtailed by a brief federal government shutdown in the fall of 2013.
“It hurt us quite a bit,” Adam Ferguson, owner of Pops Southern Style BBQ, told the newspaper. “All of the campers leaving town really made an impact.” It also hurt, Ferguson said, that the shutdown came during the fall muskie season.
Which brings us to a big reason people come to Cave Run Lake: fishing.
“It’s like hooking onto a boat that’s trying to get away from you,” said Brian Muse, an experienced muskie fisherman who is chief of operations for Corps facilities on the lake.
“It’s not uncommon at all to catch a fish that’s 40 or 42 inches, any day of the week,” he said. Unlike many people who catch and release the big fish, Muse likes to eat them. “In my opinion, they’re the second best fish to eat there is, right behind walleye.”
Some people fish for years, for decades, trying to land a really big muskie. The state record for the species was set on Cave Run on Nov. 2, 2008. That was the day Sarah Terry, a 14-year-old Montgomery County High School freshman, pulled in a 47-pounder. It was 54 inches long.
Baby monsters: Muskie fry are prepared for release at the Minor E. Clark Fish Hatchery just below the dam at Cave Run Lake. (Photo by Andy Mead)
Muskie fry are moved from the hatchery to ponds before being released into the river. The releases are an effort to compensate for the lost of breeding habitat when the lake was created. (Photo by Andy Mead)
Andy Mead photographs muskie fry being moved to ponds. The hatchery also produces several other fish species. (Photo by Ken Cooke)
Wannabe record holders should note that she was using a Double Cowgirl in-line spinner with two size 10 gold blades and a purple skirt. “It really chomped that bait,” she told state Fish and Wildlife officials. “If I had a dollar for every time I said ‘Oh, my God,’ I would be rich.”
Sarah was pictured on the cover of the next spring’s state fishing guide, holding her catch with the help of her stepfather, Scott Salchli. Because of the way the tail on Sarah’s record fish had been clipped, officials could tell it had been released 14 years earlier.
The irony of Cave Run being such a great place for catching muskie is that when the lake was created, a lot of excellent muskie spawning habitat was lost.
To compensate, the Minor E. Clark Fish Hatchery, one of the largest hatcheries in the country, was created just below the dam. It provides young muskie for the lake and other species of fish for waterways in the rest of the state.
Although Cave Run is filled with people and boats during the summer, it was virtually empty when Ken and I cruised along it in early May. Our plan had been to switch back to the canoe the next day and put in below the dam to continue our journey. But there had been heavy rains in the area a few days before. The lake had caught a lot of that runoff and was five feet above normal levels.
The Corps of Engineers was releasing some of that water through the dam. Corps officials raised their eyebrows when they heard of our plan to launch into the swift current their release was creating. We took a look at the current, ran through the probabilities of capsizing and having to swim out, and decided to come back another day.
Licking River water quality: ‘holding its own’
By Andy Mead
MOUNT STERLING – As they had every year for 15 years, Barry Tonning and Larry George were spending a beautiful fall day sloshing about in the water as they took samples from Hinkston Creek, a tributary of the Licking River.
They were in an empty pasture, wearing waterproof boots, as they dipped out small vials of water to test for things such as dissolved oxygen, which aquatic life needs to survive, and conductivity, which measures how well the water conducts electricity (a significant change in conductivity can signal that pollution is present).
“The water looks pretty good today,” Tonning said as they started. “But you never know; looks can be deceiving.”
Tonning and George are members of the Licking River Watershed Watch, a volunteer group that tests water quality in 19 counties along the Licking River basin.
The Licking River has its beginnings as a trickle in Magoffin County in Eastern Kentucky. It winds its way for 300 miles before it pours into the Ohio River across from the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. That means it has its beginnings in the coalfields, runs through forests and farmland, flows through a dense urban area in Northern Kentucky and dumps into the Ohio River.
And that means there are plenty of opportunities for abuse.
Tonning was the principal author of “The Licking River Region in Kentucky: Status and Trends,” a 1998 report coordinated by the state that was the first comprehensive, layman-friendly look ever taken of the health of the river.
Tonning, who has had a variety of careers, including newspaper reporter and economic development planner for a Native American tribe, for the past four years has been employed by an international engineering and consulting firm and has worked on projects on Hinkston Creek. If you start asking about water quality in the Licking River basin, you’re likely to be pointed his way.
The 1998 report said that most of the streams that feed into the Licking “seem to be free of excessive pollution.” It noted, however, that some tributaries were “contaminated with bacteria from sewage or livestock; silt from erosion, construction or logging; algae blooms fed by nutrients from fertilizers or manure, and some pollution from mining and industrial or urban sewage plants.”
It happens that the Status and Trends report came out the first year that Tonning, George and other Watershed Watch volunteers started collecting samples in the Licking River basin.
So, standing in the empty cow pasture with his boots in a stream, Tonning was asked how the river and its tributaries are faring today.
“We’ve seen gradual improvement over the years, there’s no question about it,” he said. “It’s an incremental thing.”
Tonning is not alone in this assessment. Marc Hult, a retired U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who lives beside the Licking in Covington and is considered THE expert on the river, said “On quality, I think we’ve made progress on a whole range of issues.”
Quantifying that improvement is difficult.
Looking at the numbers
In a study conducted in conjunction with this series, Alexis Sharp, a Northern Kentucky University environmental science senior, looked at water quality readings that Watershed Watch volunteers gathered from 1998 to 2013. She conducted her research under the direction of Kristy Hopfensperger, an assistant professor of biological sciences.
Sharp’s study took a wide view of the condition of the river in that it averaged many testing sites over 15 years. That included streams that drain forests and streams that run through cow pastures. It included dry years and wet years, which can strongly impact sampling for water quality.
Her finding: There has been little change.
“You can’t say the river has gotten worse. . .it hasn’t gotten better either,” Sharp said in an interview.
In most of the measurements, such as dissolved oxygen, Sharp found that the Licking overall meets standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Where the Licking failed badly was in high fecal coliform levels, a finding that Sharp called “a little alarming.”
Fecal coliform is an indicator of feces in the water. The feces could come from cows standing in a steam, deer running through the woods, dogs living in suburban neighborhoods or geese congregating on a golf course. It also could come from humans, through a faulty septic tank, a straight pipe that carries waste directly from a bathroom to a stream, or an urban sewer system that dumps raw sewage in the river after heavy rains.
The Licking River basin has all of those things.
Randy Payne, an environmental scientist with the Kentucky Division of Water, says that fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria are the top causes of pollution in the Licking.
The pollution levels are so high in the lower portion of the river that the Division of Water and the state Department for Public Health have started every summer since 1999 with a joint warning that people should not swim in or have skin contact with the water. (Because the Licking River flows generally north, the “lower” part of the river is also the northernmost, close to the confluence with the Ohio River.)
The swimming advisory covers all of Banklick Creek and Three Mile Creek, and the main stem of the Licking from the Banklick to the Ohio River.
“Some improvement in the concentrations has been observed in the more rural areas, but the overall water quality continues to support the need for an advisory,” Payne said in a written response to questions for this article.
(The Licking is not the only Kentucky waterway with this dubious distinction. There are similar swimming advisories for parts of the main stem and some of the tributaries of the Upper Cumberland River and part of the North Fork of the Kentucky River.)
A number of tributaries of the Licking also have tested high for E. coli, but Payne says those areas have limited monitoring and don’t rise to the level that require advisories. He notes that state water and health officials warn against swimming in any stream – in the Licking basin or elsewhere – after a rain, or within several miles of cities, suburban neighborhoods, or areas with heavy agriculture.
Payne pointed to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey that looked at statewide Kentucky water quality from 1979 to 2004. Most of the sampling sites for the Licking River showed conditions largely unchanged, with two exceptions: Most showed an increase in chloride, which could possibly show an increased use of road salts, or the effects of coal mining, or oil and gas well drilling. About half the stations showed steady or decreasing trends for fecal coliform.
The most recent report on Licking River basin water quality came out in October 2014. But it’s called the 2012 Integrated Water Quality Report, and covers the testing that ended in the spring of 2011.
It measures whether the river and its tributaries are suitable for aquatic life, primary or secondary skin contact, water supply and fishing.
The good news from the report is that all of the nearly 33 miles tested for fishing and the 87 miles tested for drinking water supply were OK.
But less than 40 percent of the 956 miles tested for aquatic life were found to be fully supporting things that live in the water. That was about 8 percent higher than the previous report two years earlier.
And less than 20 percent of the 589 miles tested for primary skin contact were found to be fully safe to touch. That’s 11 percent higher than the 2010 report.
While that appears to be a trend heading in the wrong direction, Payne argues that it is not. The change for the worse is, he said, because the state is concentrating on testing the worst places.
“The primary reason for the stream miles not fully meeting those designated uses is a result of the monitoring effort that increased in watersheds of already known impaired streams in the basin,” Payne said.
Payne’s overall impression: “Indications are the Licking River basin is holding its own.”
Cows, sewage and tobacco
People involved in improving water quality say it can be a very slow process. Take the elimination of straight pipes, which carry raw wastes from bathrooms to streams. They are illegal. But enforcement of laws against them can be difficult because solutions require expensive fixes in poor areas of the state, and because they are often found in rugged rural areas where a standard septic system may not be feasible.
No one knows how many there are in the Licking River basin, but the number probably is lower than it once was. After a flurry of concern in the late 1990s, programs were started that helped homeowners replace straight pipes with constructed wetlands or other means of dealing with waste, or hooked homes to pipes that led to treatment plants. And a state law was passed that required proof of an acceptable sewage disposal method before electricity could be turned on at a new residence.
Meanwhile, millions of federal and state dollars have helped repair old sewer lines, eliminate often-faulty package treatment plants and build new wastewater treatment plants.
The pasture where Tonning and George were taking samples was, for example, downstream of Mount Sterling, were bacteria from leaking pipes and an old treatment plant used to show up in the water tests.
Now, Tonning says, the pipes have been repaired, and the new Mount Sterling Wastewater Treatment Plant, farther downstream from the old plant, is doing a much better job treating wastes.
But high fecal coliform spikes can still be found along the creek, and Tonning says that has been frustrating. One spot with high readings is near a sewer pump station, but it also is near an area where cows have been seen standing in the water.
“Unfortunately, a small number of cattle standing upsteam from a sampling location can cause extremely high bacteria readings,” Tonning said.
Getting those cows out of streams is a long and expensive process, but it is happening.
In Bourbon County, farmer David DeMarcus took advantage of a government program that allowed him to put up fences to keep cattle out of Blacks Creek at the point where it meets Hinkston Creek. He paid 25 percent of the project costs, and the rest came from federal and other sources.
The project involved nearly 9,000 feet of fence, making water available away from the stream, and a crossing that allowed cattle to get from one side to the other.
“It saves the banks of the creek,” Demarcus said. “The cattle will get in there and pretty soon you have erosion.”
Valerie Tipton, the Bourbon County conservation technician who worked with Demarcus on the project, said the project was part of a $150,000 grant a few years ago that is being followed by a current $225,800 grant.
Fencing keeps the cows from defecating or urinating in the water and provides a buffer strip that helps catch pollution before it reaches the stream, Tipton said. As a side benefit, it provides streamside habitat for wildlife.
Both Tonning in Mount Sterling and Marc Hult in Covington said that farmers have made significant progress in keeping cattle out of streams and using less fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides.
And they both mentioned a major change in Kentucky’s agriculture that has helped water quality – the reduction in acres plowed each year for planting tobacco. Those fields are now more likely to be covered with grass, which means less sediment washing into the river.
The Lower Licking
The Licking runs into some of its worst water quality programs when it hits the urban sprawl of Northern Kentucky. So when Pamela Fisher’s Public Affairs Reporting journalism class at NKU was looking for a project on which to concentrate, they chose something close by – water quality in their back yard.
Amber Coakley, for example, examined how pollution impacted the river.
Farmer Jim Fields told her that the salamanders he used to catch as a kid were disappearing. Jeff Joerning, owner of a Cold Spring restaurant called One More Bar, talked about the lingering stench of occasional algae blooms on the river.
For her research, Amber Hemmerle wrote about Sanitation District 1’s efforts to correct a decades-old problem of “combined” sewer systems that are designed to catch rainwater runoff, domestic sewage and industrial discharges in the same pipe. The problem is that after a heavy rain, the volume is more than the pipe can carry to a treatment plant, so raw sewage runs into the river and its tributaries.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency sued, and in 2007 the sanitation district agreed to spend more than $880 million over a couple of decades to fix the problems.
Jamie Holtzapful, director of communications for SD1, said that agreement was based on a “very preliminary cost estimate.” After more study, she said, the agency found it would require more work and cost more. SD1 now is negotiating with the EPA for more time to spread out the cost and complete the work.
Holtzapful said she did not have information on a new deadline or cost estimate because negotiations are still under way.
Millions of dollars already have been spent on new sewer lines and pump stations aimed at reducing sewage overflows and several projects are under way. In some places, “green technology” has been used to improve water quality. Along Banklick Creek, for example, six acres of wetlands have been constructed. A small pump pulls some polluted water from the creek and diverts it into the wetlands, where natural processes clean the water.
In Covington, terraced berms were built in the Interstate 71/75 right-of-way and planted with trees, shrubs and grasses. The project slows the runoff of rainwater, which means fewer sewer overflows.
At one point, sewage overflowed at 193 locations after heavy rains. That number now is 164 and dropping, Holtzpaful said.
The overall goal, she said, is to reduce not only the amount of sewage flowing in the Licking and Ohio rivers, but also the amount of fertilizer, oil and animal waste in storm water runoff.
Hemmerle wrote about some of the “green infrastructure” projects the district is trying, such as working with transportation officials to create green medians that catch and filter runoff.
The “gray infrastructure” projects, mostly larger pipes, have been considerably more expensive. A Cincinnati Enquirer analysis determined that, adjusting for inflation, sewer fees have increased 291 percent since 2000. And raw sewage still pours from 180 locations after a heavy rain.
Sewers have become a major political issue in Northern Kentucky, and the district is in discussions with the EPA about getting more time to make repairs.
Meanwhile, the “no skin contact” warnings are sent out each year.
A ray of light is that levels of dissolved oxygen have risen.
The situation was so bad in 2000 that the EPA added the lowermost section of the river to its list of impaired waters.
Since then, conditions have improved. The EPA says that is due in large part to federal Clean Water Act funds spent on tributaries miles away.
The agency said that $900,000 went into efforts on Townsend Creek, $680,000 on Strodes Creek, and $1.6 million on Fleming Creek. Most of those projects involved keeping cows out of creeks and providing another source of water.
Tonning said a lot of people are involved in making the waters of the Licking River basin cleaner. They include state and federal agencies, University of Kentucky extension agents, The Nature Conservancy, Watershed Watch groups and others.
He would like to see more done, more money for conservation efforts, perhaps a 75 percent property tax break for letting vegetation strips grow along stream banks.
“We’re only about 10 to 15 percent of where we need to be, but that’s nine to 14 percent further than where we were,” he said.
“So, it took us what, 300 years, to cause the problem? It’s going to take us 50 to 100 years to get things completely turned around, but there’s been a lot of progress.”
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Senior Reporting Fellow
Andy Mead retired from the Herald Leader after 34 years, where he distinguished himself as a reporter, with a particular interest in the environment. He also worked at the Boca Raton News for four years before coming to Lexington. He grew up in Savannah, Ga. and graduated with a master’s degree in history from Florida Atlantic University. He is a widower, living in Lexington, and has twins who are college students.