A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

NKY’s Gunpowder Creek removed from impaired waterways list after decade of regional collaboration

By Chris Cole
Sanitation District 1

It’s a refrain Sanitation District No. 1 Environmental Program Manager Matt Wooten has heard many times during his career: What’s the point of small environmental projects if they don’t have an immediate, noticeable impact on the world around us? All too often, the value of environmental work goes unseen and unappreciated.

But not always. Sometimes guys like Wooten, who’s spent countless hours working to improve the quality of life in our region, have their moment.

This is one of those times.

Wooten and his colleagues at the Boone County Conservation District, the cities of Florence and Union and the Kentucky Division of Water, recently celebrated the removal of Gunpowder Creek from the state’s list of impaired waterways after nearly a decade of work. In other words, pollution factors that once harmed the creek’s waters are now gone.

Gunpowder Creek (Photo from Boone County Conservation District)

The Boone County Conservation District developed a Gunpowder Creek watershed plan in 2009 after receiving $501,000 in Clean Water Act grant funding. The plan funded extensive monitoring, planning and collaboration efforts that identified stormwater-driven sediment and bacteria as the primary pollution sources of concern. The BCCD partnered with SD1, the cities of Florence and Union, and the Division of Water to identify practices such as stream restoration, stormwater retention, and riparian buffers to mitigate the problem.

In addition, agencies including SD1 upgraded existing facilities and made changes to their rules and regulations to limit the impact of development. Updating existing structures to current engineering standards made a big difference in holding back more water and allowing it to drain more slowly into the creek. This kept the banks of the creek from eroding and washing out vital habitat for aquatic life. Learn more about these efforts at www.epa.gov.

As a result, Gunpowder Creek saw its rating improve from “poor” in 1999 to “fair” in 2011 and “good” by 2014. The creek has now been delisted from the Kentucky Division of Water’s 2018/2020 Integrated Report to Congress.

“This demonstrates that even small improvements in the watershed, when looked at cumulatively over time, have a positive impact on a receiving stream,” Wooten said. “When you have a decade’s worth of small projects being implemented, it does make a difference.”

The creek is approximately 21.9 miles long and drains a 58.2-square-mile watershed dominated by forest, urban areas and agriculture. One of the largest watersheds in Northern Kentucky, Gunpowder Creek was added to the impaired waterways list in 2002 after samples indicated the absence of anticipated aquatic macroinvertebrates within its waters. These tiny insects, snails, worms and other creatures play a big role in a creek’s ecosystem by recycling nutrients and providing food for those further up the food chain. Their absence was an indicator of poor water quality within the creek, caused by significant changes to the land surrounding the creek.

Gunpowder Creek watershed (Map from SD1; click for larger graphic)

“As Northern Kentucky has grown and land uses have changed, those changes led to changes in how stormwater runs off the land,” Wooten said. “Streams are receiving more water, and that can lead to accelerated erosion and other issues that can have a negative impact on the habitat.”

Wooten said the success at Gunpowder Creek will also help with future grant applications. “We’ve shown that we can have a positive impact,” he said. “And the changes – yeah, they’re small, but that’s the good thing about it. They’re small. Nobody had to really make any big sacrifice, from a regulatory perspective, in order to make these improvements. A lot of it was just upgrading the systems we already had; just making them function a little different. And then moving forward, using that information to make sure we don’t have a negative effect downstream after that.”

Matt Wooten

Wooten is quick to point out that there is still work to be done. Twenty other Northern Kentucky streams are also on the impaired waterways list for various reasons.

“This accomplishment demonstrates SD1’s commitment to improving the environment,” he said. “We will continue to monitor, and we’ve got more stream restoration planned. We have established 75 monitoring stations across Northern Kentucky in all different settings – rural all the way from suburban to urban. This really gives us what I call an intimate understanding of how our receiving streams react to changes in the watershed. And that can be any kind of change. That’s what’s helped us inform our program over the years. And that’s what will help us moving forward. Our region’s growing. It’s growing at a very rapid rate. In fact, Boone County is one the fastest growing counties in the state. That’s good for the economic vitality of the region, but we also want to make sure that we’re not impacting our streams. And this is a very easy way of doing it.”

In the meantime, he encourages anyone interested in improving local waterways to contact a local watershed group – there are active groups in Gunpowder Creek, Banklick Creek, and Woolper Creek, among others, to learn about best management practices and things we can all do to slow stormwater runoff.

After all, over time even the smallest improvements can have a big impact on water quality.

Sanitation District No. 1

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