Protecting our water remains a sacred trust

Forty years ago, in October, 1972, a bipartisan majority of Congress passed the Clean Water Act. That bipartisan majority included the two senators from Kentucky, John Sherman Cooper and Thurston Morton. The Clean Water Act is widely recognized as one of the most effective pieces of legislation ever enacted.

Just look at the Louisville Waterfront — now celebrating the Ohio River, instead of avoiding it as was the case before Congress took action. Unfortunately, the Clean Water Act has been largely ineffective in response to the water-pollution problems caused by agriculture, storm-water, and other "non-point sources" of pollution.

Thirty-five years ago, Wendell Berry's landmark book, The Unsettling of America, warned about the environmental and economic consequences of, and the alternative to, industrial agriculture.

Two years ago, Berry joined Wes Jackson and The Land Institute to call on Congress to enact a new kind of farm bill — a 50-year bill that could remedy the current water pollution problems caused by agriculture, such as the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.

This Saturday, Berry will join the volunteer water samplers of the Kentucky River Watershed Watch to talk about the Kentucky River, at our 15th annual Watershed Protection Conference.

Our discussion will review the results of our water quality monitoring last year compared with prior years, and we will discuss actions that can and should be taken to improve our water quality.

Berry will speak from his vantage point — his front porch overlooks the Kentucky River at Lees Landing, and he has lived and farmed and written from that perspective. Others will assess the Kentucky River watershed from different perspectives, asking the questions: What is in the water? Is the water safe?

Unfortunately, our 14 years of sampling results tell us that many streams in the Kentucky River watershed are not safe for swimming; they contain too much untreated human and animal waste.

Fortunately, the Clean Water Act spells out what is required when our rivers and streams are impaired with sewage and manure. After a stream is determined to be impaired, the act requires a form of pollution mass balance — called a "total maximum daily load" or "TMDL" — an analysis of the sources of the pollution causing the impairment and a determination of the amount of reduction from those sources needed to remedy the polluted stream. The TMDL is required to investigate all pollution sources, from sewage treatment plants and sewage overflows at manholes to stormwater and livestock and wildlife.

After many years of delay, the Division of Water has now published a TMDL to determine the sources of human and animal waste pollution in the South Elkhorn. This TMDL includes data collected by the Kentucky River Watershed Watch since 1999. We now know the sources of pathogens in the South Elkhorn. This gives us the best opportunity to clean up the South Elkhorn we have had since 1972.

From one perspective, it has taken us 40 years to get to this stage in the slow process of implementing the Clean Water Act and, if Berry and Jackson are right, it may take another 50 years to more completely address the problems of agricultural water pollution.

From another perspective, each year of water quality data collected by the volunteers added to the cumulative call for action to first understand, then take action to address the pollution problems of the South Elkhorn.

Last year, the University Press of Kentucky published Kentucky's Natural History, edited by Greg Abernathy and others, with a forward by Berry. The book opens with this Berry quote: "The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope."

In his forward, Berry considers "all that we have lost, ruined, or squandered since our European forebears came to live in this place only 235 years ago."

He then gives this reason for hope: "What I do see, and I see great hope in it, is what we could call leadership from the bottom; individuals and local groups who, without official permission or support or knowledge, are seeing what needs to be done and doing it."

The Kentucky River Watershed Watch offers Kentuckians within the Kentucky River watershed an opportunity to look around and see where we are — what we have lost, what remains and what we must do.