The Cumberland River Compact in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee, developed a new interactive watershed tool called iCreek . iCreek provides easy access to stream quality information for the Cumberland River Basin. This new tool offers a fun and easy opportunity to learn about local streams. Using iCreek, residents and individuals interested in the Cumberland River Watershed can identify the health of streams in the Cumberland River Basin. This new tool also suggests stream-quality improvement efforts based on given stream impairments.

In the Upper Cumberland watershed of Letcher County, iCreek has streams listed as both “healthy” and “unhealthy”. The impairments associated with the “unhealthy” streams in Letcher County include total dissolved solids, specific conductance, and pathogens.

Total dissolved solids (TDS) measure the amount of ions dissolved in water. While this includes naturally occurring dissolved ions like salt or CO2 from the respiration of organisms, abnormally high TDS levels can often be attributed to agricultural or pesticide runoff, sewage discharge, or increased salinity from de-icing roads. Abnormally high TDS levels can be detrimental to an ecosystem.

Actions to address harmful levels of TDS include using non-toxic de-icing methods; allowing for riparian buffer zones and no mow areas with native plants along the banks of waterways; building rain gardens; removing excess pavement and installing pervious surfaces when necessary; and using vegetation, gravel, or rain barrels for water drainage.

Other than these actions, it is necessary to employ best management practices for agriculture.  Major best management practices include using barriers to keep livestock out of streams and limiting the use of fertilizer and pesticides.

Specific conductance is a measure of how well water conducts electricity. High conductivity readings indicate elevated amounts of inorganic dissolved solids which can be harmful to both aquatic ecosystems and human health. Causes of high conductivity include the use of toxic road de-icers; agricultural phosphates and nitrates; and iron, sulfate, copper, cadmium, and arsenic stemming from mine drainage.

Cleanup and mitigation efforts for specific conductance depend on the type of ions causing high conductivity. In terms of community member action, the first step would be to contact local organizations like Headwaters, local government, or the EPA to report pollution, acid mine drainage, or violations of environmental regulations. Like mitigation for problematic TDS levels, it is important to allow for riparian buffer zones and natural growth of vegetation around waterways. It is also helpful to reduce paved and impervious surfaces so that natural filtration processes can take place.

Pathogens indicate that water is contaminated by human or animal waste. Coming in contact with pathogens can be extremely dangerous. Some aquatic species are impacted similarly to humans while others may be unaffected. Sources of pathogen contamination in waterways include straight piping and failing septic systems; sewer overflows and leaking sewer lines; polluted storm-water; undisposed of pet waste; and poor waste management related to agriculture.

Mitigation for pathogen contamination includes monitoring and caring for residential septic and waste water disposal systems; following best management practices for agriculture; picking up after your pet; building rain gardens; and allowing for natural growth and buffer zones surrounding waterways.

Supporting funding and efforts for sewer and water treatment improvements is a critical part of addressing the water quality issues related to total dissolved solids, specific conductance, and pathogen contamination. Water infrastructure is necessary to improve water quality, public health, and environmental wellbeing. Part of supporting water quality efforts is sharing information, spreading awareness, and collaborating with fellow community members.

If you or others you know are interested in supporting water quality improvement efforts and working with local government and fellow community members, please become involved with Headwaters. For more information, contact team@kyheadwaters.org.

For resources and more information related to the above water quality concerns and mentioned mitigation efforts like rain gardens, non-toxic deicers, drainage, and riparian buffer zones, please visit the Watershed Stewardship Resource Warehouse. Cumberland River Compact and The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee have developed comprehensive lists and explanations corresponding to watershed issues and mitigation efforts.

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