The Commonwealth of Kentucky was once the frontier of the nation, an untamed land filled with wild animals and coursing rivers. Though the land has been settled and developed since then, much of that wilderness remains thanks to one of the finest traditions held by Kentuckians: conservation.

The state of Kentucky is home to one of the most complex systems of streams in the country. Altogether, there are 90,000 miles of streams coursing through the heart of the state, providing vital drinking water and supporting a multitude of ecosystems. The state itself has several major rivers running through it, such as the Kentucky, Green, and Cumberland Rivers. Waterways are such an integral part of the state that even its geographical boundaries are determined by rivers, with the Mississippi forming its western border and the Ohio River its northern border.

The Cumberland River

The Cumberland River. Photo by Marc Hult

The sheer number of waterways converging within the state has made river and stream conservation a constant priority for both residents and neighboring states. And for that reason, there are a multitude of community organizations, government entities, and businesses working on water issues throughout the state. At the helm of the state’s conservation efforts is the Kentucky Waterways Alliance (KWA), a non-profit organization dedicated to cleaning up the rivers, streams, and lakes of Kentucky.

KWA was born out of a need for higher level coordination among the various groups working on water issues. Its immediate forebear took the form of a meeting held in 1991 between representatives of state industries, governments, groups, and individuals that sought an open forum to discuss a wide range of issues affecting Kentucky waterways. This first meeting, sponsored by the Kentucky Environmental Quality Commission, concluded with the decision that greater coordination was needed to improve the health of Kentucky’s waterways.

A short two years later, KWA was formed with the purpose of coordinating the protection and cleanup of the state’s rivers, streams, and lakes. Since its formation, KWA has played a role in everything from establishing watershed protection groups to challenging questionable permits and known polluters in court. In one case, KWA spent eight years fighting mining companies over their use of generic national permits for “valley fills,” a practice that involves dumping excess rock and contaminated soils in valleys near mining sites. A second lawsuit would amend the process for obtaining nationwide permits to include a much more thorough examination of the environmental impact of valley fills.

Outside of the court room, KWA maintains a number of programs to help protect the quality of Kentucky’s waters. River and stream cleanups are commonly organized by the group and its many affiliated and member organizations. These cleanups help remove solid waste such as plastic containers, discarded tires, and other debris that chokes up waterways and poses a hazard to fish and other wildlife. They also provide an opportunity for citizens to get personally involved with the task of protecting their local waterways, spurring citizen action and support for KWA’s work.

Photo by Will Willis

Other activities focus on protecting watersheds by working with local communities. KWA works to curb urban runoff containing everything from backyard fertilizers to pesticides, two common substances carried downstream via storm drains. In rural communities, KWA’s watershed protection initiatives take the form of septic repairs or replacements and securing funding for farmers to install Best Management Practices, all of which improve the health of local creeks and communities.

Additionally, KWA has a groundbreaking partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service known as the Kentucky Aquatic Resource Fund (KARF), which helps support conservation projects. The fund supports a variety of projects that include endangered species propagation, stream and wetland restoration, land preservation, and monitoring the health of waterways and wildlife throughout the state.

The KARF partnership has been particularly successful in restoring mussel populations in Kentucky’s major rivers, as well as those of West Virginia, Ohio, and Tennessee. Mussels are an essential element for healthy river systems as they filter out phytoplankton and bacteria from the water and produce valuable nutrients for plants to absorb. Restoration efforts have included transplanting healthy mussels from parts of Kentucky that have a thriving population, as well as developing ways to grow mussels in vitro.

The Kentucky Waterways Alliance’s impeccable record of environmental protection has recently earned it the honor of being named the National Wildlife Federation’s state affiliate in Kentucky. As an official state affiliate, KWA is able to collaborate with the national organization on a number of regional and national issues, greatly expanding the scope of the Alliance’s work. It also confers on KWA the ability to set the NWF’s conservation policy priorities in conjunction with all other 48 state affiliates.

In just 22 short years, the Kentucky Waterways Alliance has become one of the most influential conservation organizations in the Ohio River Valley. Their dedication to the preservation of Kentucky’s waterways continues to inspire others to realize a future where waterways, and the wildlife that inhabits them, no longer need protecting.

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