Monday, July 13, 2020

The waters of Midway – South Elkhorn Creek and Lee Branch – are cleaner; still not clean enough to play in

Lee Branch just before it enters Walter Bradley Park; click to enlarge
By Lauren McCally

University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

South Elkhorn Creek is a popular fishing and kayaking stream, and a beautiful feature of the Midway area. But the creek and its tributary that runs through Midway, Lee Branch, still do not meet the standards for recreation involving contact with the water, despite continuing efforts to clean them up.

However, that does not mean fishing in the creek is unsafe, or that users of Walter Bradley Park should worry about an occasional splash from Lee Branch.

The latest public samples from the streams, taken last year, showed some improvement from 2016, but with fecal bacteria levels still above the threshold at which swimming becomes risky.

In 2013, the last time the Midway Messenger looked at Elkhorn Creek’s pollution, Lindell Ormsbee, director of the Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute at the University of Kentucky, said, “I would not recommend swimming in that creek.”

Seven years later, “The impairment status of the stream has not yet changed,” Steven Evans, a researcher at the UK institute, said in an email.

Lee Branch has received more use and attention since the forested section of the park along the stream was improved four years ago. It also has bacterial pollution above the limit for swimming, but isn’t deep enough to swim, and its latest sample showed a level lower than the one from South Elkhorn Creek.

Lee Branch's pollution can vary widely because it is small and subject to overflows from a faulty sewer on Smith Street. When a member of the Midway Musings group on Facebook noted the overflows, Mayor Grayson Vandegrift said the city’s planned sewer-repair project would resolve that issue.

The Musings thread began when a member asked if the water in Lee Branch was “safe for our fur babies.” Vandegrift said a test for the city two years ago showed it “about twice as high as normal” for fecal bacteria, but “I don’t think it’s unsafe for dogs, though. Ours cool off in it on walks and even drink in it. No human should ever drink from it, though.”

Vandegrift said even pets shouldn’t be in Lee Branch when it floods. The state Division of Water advises against swimming or playing in streams immediately following a storm event due to the increased likelihood of bacteria and other pathogens.

Data from Kentucky River Watershed Watch
For water to be considered swimmable, it must have 240 or fewer colony-forming units (CFUs) of E. coli bacteria per 100 milliliters of water, about one-fifth of a pint. In 2019, a sample taken from Lee Branch by a volunteer for Kentucky River Watershed Watch showed 298 CFUs.

In 2016, KRRW samples showed 238 in May, 2,628 in July and 135 in September. That July was a very rainy month, and heavy rain causes sewers to overflow.

The samples were taken 150 yards downstream from Stephens Street, near the Midway University footbridge, according to the KRRW.

Another site, which KRRW labeled as Lee Branch “in front of Midway University,” appears to be from the unnamed tributary of the branch that runs along Stephens Street and flows into the branch halfway between Stephens and the MU footbridge. That sample showed only 179 CFUs, indicating the sewer’s influence on the main branch. In 2016 report, the tributary had much more bacteria, with an average score of 938.

South Elkhorn Creek: Samples taken last year just downstream from Ironworks Estates showed 532 CFUs, more than double the limit for swimming. That was more than the 302 average for 2016, when readings ranged from 104 in May to 691 in July.

An unnamed tributary running through Ironworks Estates showed only 47 FCUs, indicating that the subdivision is contributing little to the pollution.

Grading the streams: Conductivity is another key indicator of water quality. High conductivity signals more dissolved chemicals. It is measured in microsiemens per centimeter, with 500 the level posing risk to aquatic life. In 2019 Lee Branch had a conductivity score of 323, lower than its 2016 average of 389.

Overall in 2019, the UK research institute gave Lee Branch and South Elkhorn Creek a grade of C, or “fair,” for bacteria. For conductivity, Lee Branch received a grade of B, or “good.” The creek got a D, or “poor,” and was listed as a “site of concern,” perhaps also because of nitrogen and phosphorus levels, which are raised by runoff from fertilizers on farms.

South Elkhorn Creek runs from western Fayette County to Franklin County, and forms almost all the border of Woodford and Scott counties.

“It’s not very clean, but it’s a whole lot cleaner than it was 30 to 40 years ago,” said Mac Weisenberger, fifth-generation owner of Weisenberger Mill, located on the Scott County bank of the creek near Midway since 1865.

“I see a lot of people come down here and go fishing,” he said. “It has been on the increase.”

Lexington's role: The creek runs through horse and cattle farms, which are sources of bacteria, but in recent decades it has also been polluted by leaky sewer pipes and stormwater overflow from Lexington. In recent years, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government has completed several projects to mitigate the problem.

“Tremendous progress and investment has been made towards improving water quality in the Fayette County portion of the South Elkhorn watershed,” Evans said in an email, “ but there is still a long way to go.”

In 2019, the Lexington government completed detailed analysis of the areas that required additional work due to high concentrations of bacteria, with the assistance of community volunteers.

“There been a lot of work to move things in a positive direction,” Evans said. “The problems were not created in a day, and the solutions will not occur overnight.”

Meanwhile, there is other good news. Robert Watts, president of Bluegrass Wild Water, said in an email, “One of my members found a huge, less than 12 inch (deceased), mudpuppy salamander out there last summer. Those are an indicator species for great water quality, because of the way their skin absorbs chemicals.”

This story originally appeared in the Spring/Summer print edition of the Midway Messenger.

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