Gunpowder Creek restored, removed from impaired waterways list

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Pollution that once harmed the waters of Gunpowder Creek is now gone.

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,” or the tiny insects who recycle nutrients and provide food for those further up the food chain.

Their absence was an indicator of poor water quality within the Boone County creek, caused by significant changes to the surrounding land, according to Sanitation District No. 1, which is responsible for the treatment and maintenance of the region’s wastewater and stormwater.

After receiving $501,000 in Clean Water Act grant funding, the Boone County Conservation District developed a Gunpowder Creek watershed plan in 2009. The plan funded extensive monitoring, planning and collaboration efforts that identified stormwater-driven sediment and bacteria as the primary pollution sources of concern. 

The conservation district partnered with Sanitation District No. 1, the cities of Florence and Union, and the Division of Water to identify practices such as stream restoration, stormwater retention, and vegetation buffers to mitigate the problem.

In addition, agencies upgraded existing facilities and made changes to their rules and regulations to limit the impact of local developments. 

“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 habitats for aquatic life,” according to a press release from SD1. 

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.

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Map of Gunpowder Creek. Photo courtesy of Sanitation District No. 1

Sanitation District No. 1 Environmental Program Manager Matt Wooten and all those involved in the restoration effort recently celebrated the removal of Gunpowder Creek from the state’s list of impaired waterways after nearly a decade of work.

“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.”

Wooten said the changing landscape of Northern Kentucky has led to changes in stormwater runoff, meaning streams are receiving more water, leading 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 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.”

Wooten was 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.” 

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He said 75 monitoring stations across Northern Kentucky allow SD1 to have an “intimate understanding” of changes to the watershed in local steams. He added that economic developments make it “one of the fastest-growing counties in the state” but it’s key to “make sure that we’re not impacting our streams.” 

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 to slow stormwater runoff.

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