WINCHESTER — The white Winchester Municipal Utilities pickup pulls up next to Tim Parrott as he walks along the shore of a 2-acre pond. The driver, David Taulbee, wearing sunglasses and a cap on this cloudless June day, calls out to Parrott through the open passenger window.
"Those bass ready to eat yet?" Taulbee asks, grinning. "We've got a grill down here."
"Here" is the Strodes Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant that treats the sewage of Winchester, the Clark County seat of 18,000 residents.
Parrott just smiles and says, "Soon."
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Parrott is president of Aquila International, a Versailles aquaculture company that raises hybrid striped bass, largemouth bass, paddlefish, hybrid catfish and koi in the tanks and lagoons no longer used for sewage treatment.
As better methods for treating wastewater have become available, cities — including Frankfort and Winchester — have built new plants and decommissioned the old ones. That's how Parrott, who received permission from the state Division of Water and from Winchester Municipal Utilities, began raising fish in the old part of the Strodes Creek plant.
"I think this is a perfectly viable, clean, healthy way to produce fish," Parrott said. So far, the science backs his assertion.
Earlier in the day, Parrott pitched scoops of pelleted food into the lagoon and watched the water churn as hybrid striped bass ate in a piranhalike frenzy. Parrott estimates that 12,000 hybrids — a cross between a marine striped bass and a freshwater white bass — live in what was once a sedimentation pond.
When the fish reach market size of 1½ pounds in the fall, they will be taken by truck to live-fish markets in New York, Atlanta and other metro areas. The koi, catfish and largemouth bass are raised in tanks of about 110,000 gallons each; the paddlefish are raised in round, 112,000-gallon tanks called clarifiers. Those tanks and clarifiers use water that has been processed by the new treatment plant — water that meets government quality criteria for humans and aquatic life.
Kentucky State University aquaculture researchers have known since 2006 that such "reuse technology" is a viable way to raise fish and recycle outdated treatment facilities.
"We're actively involved in the research to prove the safety of this," Parrott said. "I've raised a bunch of different kind of fish in a wastewater treatment plant, and eaten all of them, and they're great. KSU has already completed some testing on these fish and they are very, very clean."
Steve Mims, principal investigator for KSU's Division of Aquaculture, said tissue samples from the fish raised by Parrott demonstrate they are safe for human consumption.
Killis Sinkhorn, supervisor of the Strodes Creek plant, said he is "a big fan" of Parrott's pilot project.
Using existing tanks saved Parrott untold dollars in his enterprise. On the other side of the win-win equation, Winchester Municipal Utilities would have had to spend "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to demolish the parts of the old plant that Parrott now uses for fish farming.
"It demonstrates how old facilities can be reused for a beneficial use," Sinkhorn said. "You've got that stigma of wastewater and sewage and stuff, but you can take parts of the old plant with perfectly good tanks and vessels and utilize it for something like this. It's good for the community and promotes educational opportunities."
Aquila's five-year contract stipulates that the company will conduct up to four educational lessons each year. A KSU-sponsored class of high school students toured the Strodes Creek plant in late June and saw Parrott's operation.
"It's really cool," Moriah Bellamy, 15, of Frankfort, said after she saw the hybrid bass gobbling up their food.
Feeding those fish is a seven-day-a-week job from April through the end of September. Parrott leaves his home in Versailles and gets to the plant each day between 5:30 and 6 a.m. He spends about 90 minutes feeding and checking on the fish, and mowing weeds.
Parrott, 52, is a native of Nonesuch in southern Woodford County, where he grew up on a tobacco farm. In the early 1990s he worked in the mussel business, in which freshwater mussel shells were raised to make polished beads that were implanted into oysters to create cultured pearls.
When that market went bust, Parrott enrolled in KSU in 2002 and got a nursing degree in 2004. He makes his living as a nurse at Select Specialty Hospital, located on the third floor of UK HealthCare's Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington.
But Parrott still had fish on the brain, and he wondered if there was a way to make money through "reservoir ranching." The idea was to raise paddlefish from fingerlings to 6 months old, then move them to municipal water-supply lakes around the state. While in those lakes, the paddlefish could mature until they were 8 to 10 years old, and eventually produce caviar and be harvested for their boneless meat.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources issued a regulation in 2006 that allowed private individuals to contract with municipalities to raise paddlefish in water supplies. Parrott now has 40,000 fish stocked in about 2,000 acres of water around the state.
Among the places where Parrott has stocked paddlefish are two reservoirs in Hopkins County that supply water to Madisonville. Keith Curneal, the city's filtration superintendent, said the fish have proven beneficial and even saved money.
The city is using fewer chemicals to control algae in the lake, and Curneal thinks that's due to the paddlefish. (The water in which the fish live is processed and disinfected before humans drink it.)
"These paddlefish swim around all day long with their mouths open, filtering zooplankton (microscopic animal life), and when they do that they're actually filtering out some of our algae," Curneal said. Less algae means less chemicals to control it, and Curneal estimates the savings to be at least $10,000 a year.
Aquila still owns those fish, and when it comes time to harvest them, a percentage of the proceeds will go to Madisonville.
In the meantime, Aquila has not made a profit, but Parrott thinks the potential is there. He has sold paddlefish for research and to an aquarium, and has sold some to places that offer freshwater scuba diving in abandoned rock quarries.
Meanwhile, Parrott describes himself as a "prospector" who is trying to determine whether raising fish in this novel way will become a money-making proposition.
"I liked the idea that I've helped create something new, and I'm doing something that's not just another job," he said.