RICHMOND — Jason Ledford grew up swimming in the Kentucky River at Fort Boonesborough State Park.
"I can remember — this was in the mid '80s — when it was a packed beach here, and over there you had the concession stand and showers," Ledford said Saturday, revisiting the park. "Then it started going downhill. Folks would warn us, 'You don't want to be in there. Don't touch that water!'"
State officials closed the Fort Boonesborough beach a generation ago because human and animal sewage contaminated the water, spawning dangerous levels of bacteria.
On Saturday, nobody swam, waded or fished in the river as it flowed past sluggishly, the color of milky coffee. But thousands of people did come to the park to enjoy the first-ever River Blast celebration, which included live music, food, arts and crafts, vintage cars, a bonfire and fireworks. Organizers chiefly hoped to get people down to the water, to paddle in a kayak or canoe or to simply realize the river is there. Dozens of people did just that, competing in paddleboat races throughout the day.
Although the Kentucky River meanders through the Bluegrass region, skirting the southern edge of Lexington, there are few public access points to encourage interaction, said Rob Rumpke, president of Bluegrass Tomorrow, a regional planning organization.
"This is a resource that we've got to bring back into the public eye. People take their water supply and their watershed for granted, so they don't necessarily respect it like they should," Rumpke said. "We don't celebrate our river in Lexington — we just ignore it and take our water from it."
Central Kentuckians' water supply mostly comes from the Kentucky River.
The river's watershed — the land and tributaries that drain into it — covers nearly 7,000 square miles and 42 counties, from the Eastern Kentucky coalfield, where strip-mining is a common polluter, to agricultural and urban sections of Central and Northern Kentucky, with fertilizer runoff, wastewater discharge and other things you don't want in your iced tea.
After it's piped from the river, drinking water is disinfected and filtered at one of several treatment plants, said Susan Lancho, spokeswoman for Kentucky American Water, which helped sponsor River Blast. Lab technicians continually test water samples.
Pat Banks, founding board member with Kentucky Riverkeeper, said she hopes River Blast encourages people to "get out on the water" and "help clean it up, always bring back more garbage than you take in."
Banks said people also should consider clean water on Election Day. Vote for the candidate who pledges wise environmental stewardship, she said.
"In the Senate race, all we're hearing from both sides is this smoke screen about how environmentalists are bad because they're all against coal miners, they want to take away miners' jobs," Banks said. "Somehow the discussion needs to be more than just 'Are you for or against coal?' It has to be about the bad actors among coal companies that pollute and break the rules. It has to be about how do we create a healthier, sustainable economy?"