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News - Protecting Watersheds is Vital

  • May 15, 2014

Kentucky has more miles of navigable water than any other state in the mainland U.S. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, every Kentuckian lives in a watershed and relies on it as the sole source of water.

Watersheds are defined as the area of land where runoff flows to a common stream. For farmers, protecting streams from harmful substances such as farm chemicals, soil and animal waste must be a priority within their operations. Farmers across the state, in fact, have joined forces with the Kentucky Division of Water, local Conservation Districts, and the National Resources Conservation Service in an effort to protect and maintain the watersheds on or around their property. Paulette Akers, manager of the Kentucky Division of Water’s Watershed Management branch, works with citizens and other agencies to promote education about watershed management and to provide technical support for monitoring of Kentucky’s waterways.

“We help coordinate watershed watch groups across the state and help people write plans for their own watersheds,” said Akers. “We provide assistance to farmers and help them see the connection between agriculture and watersheds. One thing we tell people is that if it’s on the ground, it’s in your water. The idea of a watershed is that every drop of water that lands somewhere in the state also runs somewhere in the state. We want to help ag folks understand that although it’s their property, the water doesn’t stay on their property. It is all interconnected.”

Akers emphasized that the Kentucky Division of Water wants to try and help farmers be as profitable as possible, while protecting Kentucky’s waterways.

“It may be the case that they need an alternate water supply,” said Akers. “We want to help them with that. Our primary goal is to protect this valuable resource, and we want to work with farmers to achieve that goal.”

It became evident in the late 1960s and early 1970s that water pollution had become a significant problem. That was truly underscored when the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire.

Congress passed the landmark Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972 which requires that the nation’s waters be fishable, swimmable, and drinkable, and focuses on monitoring the effects of runoff pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency is primarily responsible for enforcement.

While the CWA primarily targeted heavy industry and waste disposal practices, the technological advances in agriculture moved the industry into focus to curb potential effects from the increasing use of chemicals and the advent of confined animal feeding operations. Mounting concern about the growth of CAFOs in Kentucky prompted farm groups to work with the State Division of Natural Resources and other environmental groups to develop a program for the state. That led to the 1994 passage of the Kentucky Agriculture Water Quality Act.

Widely regarded as landmark legislation and strongly supported by KFB, the Ag Water Quality Act requires farmers to develop plans to protect watersheds, implementing so-called “Best Management Practices” that were adopted in tandem with the program. A cost-share program was established to assist with implementation of on-farm practices.

Over the years more and more programs surfaced to promote a volunteer approach to curbing agriculture’s impact on watersheds. One such initiative involves the Dix River, a 79-mile-long tributary of the Kentucky River that runs through central Kentucky. The river’s watershed is largely agricultural land, but it also runs through communities. In recent years, a local group called the Dix River Watershed Council worked with the Kentucky Division of Water and Third Rock Consultants to create a watershed plan. A Federal 319 grant made possible by the Clean Water Act provided the necessary funds for the project, and it began in a small part of the watershed called Peyton Creek.

Since this area had a high concentration of livestock, funding was provided for education and the implementation of fencing, alternative water sources, animal waste facilities, shade structures and stream buffers. These measures helped remove livestock waste from the water. The Peyton Creek project was so successful that the Conservation District decided to continue to work on a larger part of the watershed.

Boyle County farmer Will Stallard participated in the project, and was very pleased with the outcome.

“I am a fifth-generation farmer in Boyle County,” said Stallard. “My great-great grandfather purchased this track of land in 1922, and my wife and I bought it in 2010. We raise cattle, tobacco, and hay.”

Stallard said that after he purchased the family farm, his first step was to address a need for fencing and to attain a better water supply.

“We got involved with the EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) project,” said Stallard. “Within that project, we set up water tanks and paddocks for rotational grazing. After that project was completed, we found out about the 319 grant, which was being used to improve the Dix River watershed. We decided to participate in this project, and put in a feed pad.”

Stallard named numerous benefits.

“We were having trouble feeding our cattle in the winter; we didn’t have a specified feeding area,” Stallard explained. “There were some runoff issues with our bale feeders. The feed pad helped address some of those issues, but it wasn’t a fix-all. We were still seeing some deep mud and manure build-up where the feed pad was located. However, we were able to spread out the mud a little more and save the manure to apply it back onto fields in places needed, as determined by soil testing.”

Stallard said his involvement in the project gave him an opportunity to implement best management practices, and to ensure that the water that sustains his business and his family is clean and safe.

“I think it’s important for people to know that we are selling a product, and that product is beef,” Stallard explained. “We are not only taking care of the animals we raise, we are also taking care of the environment. We want to be good stewards of the resources we have been given, and sustain them for future generations.”

Stallard went on to say that he and his family appreciated the help of the Conservation District in Boyle and Lincoln counties, in leading the way to improve the Dix River watershed.

“Without the foresight of those folks, we may not have been able to do as much as we have now done to protect our natural resources,” said Stallard. “They demonstrated true leadership by securing grant money and helping all of us protect and maintain our water.”

Marvin (Bo) Renfro, Lead District Conservationist for the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), said watershed management is an effort on everyone’s part — both agencies and landowners — to strengthen their efforts in addressing water quality needs.

“When there is a need to clean up the environment, landowners have to be conservation-minded through the completion of a project,” said Renfro. “Many times farmers get a bad rap, but they are very much aware of maintaining good water quality because they have to water their livestock and drink the water themselves. Farmers are good stewards of the land; they want to protect the water sources that provide their livelihood.”

As watershed management projects continue to crop up all over the state, Renfro and others concerned about Kentucky’s water quality hope that farmers will take advantage of available funding and participate in these programs.

“It’s almost like a catch-on situation,” said Renfro. “When one person does something in the neighborhood, the idea catches on and grows. When funds become available, it’s time to take advantage of that funding and act. You may not have all the money you need in the beginning to improve water quality in the watershed, but hopefully as time goes on these small efforts will combine to make a huge impact.”

1. Dedication on the Local Level Leads to Success for Water Quality by Kimberly Bartley.
2. Watershed Planning Guidebook for Kentucky Communities: 1st Ed., 2010. Compiled by the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Kentucky Division of Water.

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