Kentucky has a natural abundance of beautiful rivers and streams, and a long history of using and abusing them.
As the 47th annual Earth Day approaches, the Grand Theatre in Frankfort will show two half-hour documentaries by Louisville filmmaker Morgan Atkinson and Herb Smith of Appalshop in Whitesburg about two iconic Kentucky streams and the bigger issues of environmental stewardship they symbolize.
Smith’s 2015 film profiles the Kentucky River, which flows 259 miles from Beattyville, where three forks coming out of Southeastern Kentucky converge, through Central Kentucky and into the Ohio River at Carrollton.
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His film shows the river in all of its seasonal beauty, while discussing its historical importance and the challenges it faces from pollution. Smith also explains how the river was harnessed generations ago with 14 locks and dams for navigation, water supply and flood control and how its capacity for hydroelectric generation is being rediscovered.
Atkinson’s 2016 film takes a more creative and daring approach to profiling Beargrass Creek, which drains more than 60 square miles of Jefferson County before flowing into the Ohio. He imaginatively explores the pristine beginnings of the creek that sustained prehistoric Native Americans and gave John James Audubon a place to sketch birds two centuries ago when Louisville was still a small town.
By the 1840s, Louisville’s growth had severely polluted Beargrass Creek, which ran red with the blood of slaughtered hogs and smelled from the city’s sewage. The south fork ran through downtown until the 1850s, when it was rerouted to improve sanitation.
Like Lexington’s Town Branch Creek, this spring-fed stream became such an urban hazard that large sections were buried in concrete culverts during the 20th century. Some parts of the stream remain scenic, and the Beargrass Creek Alliance and government regulators have helped bring other parts back to life. But water quality in many sections remains poor.
Atkinson’s film is much more than the story of a creek that people outside Louisville may know or care little about. He makes Beargrass Creek a symbol for urban waters nationwide, warning of the dangers they face — especially now.
The film uses old news footage to show widespread environmental degradation that in 1970 led to the first Earth Day and creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which President Donald Trump is now trying to neuter.
“Beargrass: The Creek in Our Backyard” is a cautionary tale, showing how much progress has been made in the past half century — and how greed and carelessness threatens the future of clean, beautiful streams everywhere.