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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Elkhorn Creek is a little bit polluted, but it's still a great place to boat, fish and float – or just watch it flow along

An angler wearing waders fishes South Elkhorn Creek near the Moores Mill Road Bridge
By Katie Ledford
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

South Elkhorn Creek, Midway’s defining waterway, is popular with fishers and kayakers and is a beautiful feature of the area, but does not meet the standards for recreation involving contact with the water.

This does not mean that fishing in the stream is unsafe, but anyone with open wounds should avoid contact with the water, experts say.

“I would not recommend swimming in that creek, and that’s probably one of the better ones,” said Lindell Ormsbee, director of the Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute at the University of Kentucky. “I wouldn’t go boating immediately after wet weather events.”

Ormsbee was chief author of a report that showed fecal bacteria in the creek exceeded official limits in 2011, and recent samplings by volunteers of the Kentucky Watershed Watch found similar pollution.

A kayaker at the Margaux Farm bridge along Moores Mill Road
South Elkhorn Creek begins in Fayette County, and flows through Woodford, Scott and Franklin counties; defines the border between Scott and Woodford. Ormsbee’s study found more fecal bacteria the farther you go upstream, from the bridges on Midway Pike (KY 341) to Leestown Road to Payne’s Depot Road.

According to Ormsbee, the main problem is leaky sewer pipes and storm-water overflows in Lexington, which put fecal bacteria into the water.

“Lexington has got a pretty significant problem where these pipes are typically not big enough to carry all of the sewage,” Ormsbee said. “If you have a storm event, these pipes have lots of cracks and leaks in them so when you have a lot of rain the rain soaks in and it flows into these pipes.” If there is an excess amount of water, it will overflow through manholes and flow into the waterways.

Ormsbee’s report says wildlife and livestock sources also contribute to the pollution. Bluegrass Stockyards lies just downstream of the Town Branch Wastewater Treatment Plant. Midway Station, a failed industrial park, nearly became the new home of Bluegrass Stockyards but was opposed by some because they feared pollution to the creek, which runs nearby.

Straight pipes are also an issue. These are wastewater system pipes that run from a home or business and are directly connected to a receiving body of water. The 2011 report says, “Straight pipes are suspected to exist within the watershed that ultimately discharge into South Elkhorn Creek, although the exact number and location are unknown.”

The latest report from the Kentucky River Watershed Watch, from 2012, says volunteers took samples from 44 locations in in the South Elkhorn watershed, which much more than any other stream in the Kentucky River basin. This could be because it flows through a metropolitan area.

The results of these samples showed that some of the sampling sites in Scott and Woodford counties exceeded the limit for fecal bacteria. Lee’s Branch, 150 yards downstream of Stephens Street in Midway, showed that it exceeded the bacteria limit and was low on dissolved oxygen. The portion of Lee’s Branch that flows in front of Midway College showed even less dissolved oxygen, which is one indicator of a waterway’s ability to support aquatic life.

Farther downstream, half a mile upstream of Midway Pike, the creek exceeded the bacteria limit and did not meet the standard for dissolved oxygen. However, along Moores Mill Road a little bit downstream from the Leestown Road bridge, a sample showed the bacteria and dissolved-oxygen standards were being met.

Weisenberger Mill is the best known site on South Elkhorn Creek
The latter result, which runs contrary to the trend that pollution is greater upstream, could be attributed to the dam at Weisenberger Mill, which aerates the creek. At the same time, that sample showed a relatively high degree of electrical conductivity, which reflects the amount of salts in the water – a factor that is bad for small aquatic organisms.

Though South Elkhorn Creek has fecal bacteria above the limits, amny tourists and locals like Gene Slusher of Midway, owner of Lexington Angler, are not discouraged from the visiting it.

Slusher laughed when asked about the bacteria in the creek, saying “I grew up on Elkhorn Creek and have swam in it.” Slusher, who spent a year working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on national water quality issues, said the amount of bacteria in the creek is not high enough to harm humans.

Slusher said he fishes the creek regularly and considers it an important recreational resource. He fishes South Elkhorn Creek all the time. Smallmouth bass are the most popular; this watershed was once a famous fishery for them. Common carp, sunfish, crayfish and other large invertebrates also live in the creek.

Despite the fact that South Elkhorn Creek has some pollution, it is still is a valuable resource to locals and tourists for many reasons. The creek loops around Equus Run Vineyards between the Leestown Road and Interstate 64 bridges. The vineyard’s owner, Cynthia Bohn, said there is no fencing to separate South Elkhorn Creek from the 38 acres of Equus Run and she didn’t suspect such pollution in the creek.

Cynthia Bohn at Equus Run Vineyards
“I would have never known it’s polluted,” she said. Bohn called the creek a “tremendous asset” for her business. Her customers enjoy fly fishing, kayaking and floating on the creek with inner tubes. She said the creek around her land is about 20 to 24 inches deep, not ideal for swimming. Guests can come into the vineyard office and get a fishing pass to use on the property as well as go picnicking along the creek. Bohn said on a nice Friday, Saturday or Sunday, you might see 10 fishermen out on the creek. She said almost half of the vineyard has direct access to the creek.

“We are right in the middle of the Bluegrass, the horse capital, and we have all these treasures,” including the creek, Bohn said. “I love my Elkhorn Creek. … I am very interested in sustaining it.” She added, “I’m in the tourism business and when my customers have more things to enjoy when they are in the Bluegrass, the better.”

The co-owner of Canoe Kentucky in Frankfort, Mason Detenbrock, said South Elkhorn Creek is a good fishing stream but has very public limited access. “Most people access the creek from private property which, historically, landowners have not minded,” he said.

Detenbrock said his business does some guided canoe tours of the creek. “It’s a beautiful stretch of creek for sure.”
South Elkhorn Creek watershed is marked with red lines on this Kentucky Geological Survey map.
Streams marked in red do not support "assessed uses," such as swimming. Sewage plant outfalls
are marked as pipes spilling red liquid. Numbered squares are public water withdrawal sites.
Number 12 in yellow circle is the site of a photo on the full Kentucky River watershed map.

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