Improve Cane Run without city's costly, disruptive plan

First, do no harm.

Sadly, I'm reminded of this ancient Hippocratic oath on reviewing the plans of Lexington Fayette Urban County Government (following a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) for the Cane Run Creek watershed in northern Fayette County.

I'm opposed to this plan for the following reasons:

1. Although the principal stated goal of this engineering project is to improve water quality in the Cane Run source waters for Royal Spring, the proposal is not based on a detailed professional assesment of pollutant levels and their respective sources, either in this drainage or in other comparable watersheds in the Lexington area.

No information has been provided on the analytical methods used, the frequency of sampling, statistical methods, etc. The most degradative pollutant — unsightly and persistent urban trash (especially plastics) — is not even mentioned.

No surprise here as the proposed actions would simply disperse this mess instead of mitigating it.

2. No rigorous evaluation has been made of the probable improvements in stream quality associated with the proposed project. Nor is there any realistic plan of how this crucial project objective is to realized.

We are supposed to accept on faith the efficacy of the project, yet a recent review article in Science documents that the majority of such watershed projects have failed in this regard.

3. The principal water-quality issues in Cane Run at the proposed project site actually originate upstream of the Coldstream Farm site and the adjoining Lexmark campus.

That is certainly true of the worst stormwater runoff, the trash and the raw sewage. Mitigation should be focused nearer the source areas of these insults, not in the comparatively attractive green spaces downstream.

4. The engineering/biological assesment of the project site is misguided, incomplete and perhaps even disingenuous. Aerial photography and topographic mapping dating back to the 1930s indicate channel stability, not the straightening of flood plane meanders. Also, soil profiles revealed residual clay (developed from weathering the local limestone bedrock) not alluvium.

No doubt some channel down-cutting has occurred, but this was not documented. In any case, such dissection is to be expected on an elevated plateau receiving heavy annual precipitation.

This headwaters stream often disappears into swallow holes except during periods of highly elevated flow. This hydrologic behavior is exactly what one would expect, dating even back to the pre-settlement era, because the local bedrock is soluble limestone, and the source streams are hydrologically "perched" hundreds of feet above the regional groundwater discharge points along the Kentucky River and its principal tributaries.

The proposed plan is to modify the existing stream from its natural state, not restore it as claimed.

5/ The vegetation survey was incomplete and seriously misleading. Although note was made of two large bur oaks in the area, no mention was made of the abundant black walnut of varying ages throughout. In fact, the project site is actually dominated by valuable upland species that colonize fertile, but well-drained, sites (e.g. walnut, black cherry, oak), not typical floodplain species like silver maple, box elder, and sycamore.

Here, the existing forest ecology contradicts the so-called restoration goals of the project. This engineering plan calls for bulldozing and grubbing the existing riparian vegetation (while somehow sparing the two iconic bur oaks), and burying the remains under recontoured compacted soil.

Why would anyone, even an engineer in love with earth-moving machines, propose creating an artificial flood plain at great expense — $1.25 million — while replacing attractive, potentially valuable native vegetation with something different?

It's about the money, and who is receiving it. And who is paying? The taxpayer.

So what is the answer?

It would be better to do nothing than what has been proposed, and it would also be a lot cheaper. If, however, after a careful comparative survey of water quality in Lexington-Bluegrass streams, some mitigation is still called for in Cane Creek, I suggest more commonsense approaches:

■ Mitigate pollutant loadings upstream closer to their point and non-point sources.

■ Consider reducing hydrologic "flashiness" by constructing two or more ponds above Lexmark's property. These ponds might still support waterfowl, fishing and recreation.

■ Finally, consider mitigating stream bank undercutting and erosion by placing limestone cobbles and gravel in the channel beds. This placement could be made by "walking" machines down the existing channel while avoiding compacting and damaging the adjacent riparian soils/vegetation. Under no circumstances should alien clays be introduced into the existing watershed, as per the proposal.

In summary, celebrate and protect the unique environmental heritage we have here in the Bluegrass Region, and eschew expensive and artificial engineering solutions to ecological issues in the phony name of restoration.

At issue: Sept. 25 column by Julian Campbell, "Cane Run plan could do more damage than good: Consult public on water-quality project"

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