Monday, August 14, 2017

Canoeing on Beargrass Creek

Beargrass Creek is the watershed for most of Jefferson County, Kentucky. It has a long and discouraging history if you are an environmentalist. Originally, it flowed into the Ohio River at 4th Street in downtown Louisville. In the early 1800's an outbreak of malaria caused the city fathers to drain all the small ponds and swampy areas, as well as moving several miles of the creek so it  flowed into the Ohio River from what is now known as the Butchertown area. In the rapidly growing city of the 1800's, sewage disposal was always an issue - what to do with it and how to pay for that disposal. Slaughterhouses along the creek dumped their offal directly into the creek, so bodies and blood floated and stank. A distillery caught fire and the creek burned with floating whiskey for 10 days. Looks like the same issues we have today. Yesterday, the Louisville Audubon Society sponsored a canoe trip on Beargrass Creek with David Wicks, a local educator, paddler and activist who has made Beargrass Creek something of a pet project. We rode in a big voyager canoe from the police station in Waterfront Park upstream to Beargrass Creek.
The Ohio River is a liquid highway through this part of the country. It was the easiest way for settlers to reach the west, and provided transport for commerce of all kinds for over 200 years now. The US Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the river, controlling it through a series of 21 locks and dams to keep the navigation channel at the proper depth.
As we turned into the creek entrance, we watched the Great Egrets fishing in the shallows. Human fishermen sat along the banks fishing as well. At one point, David informed us, Beargrass Creek had been declared a "dead" waterway due to all the pollution, so he says it is improved a lot since then.
I asked if all the trash was coming downstream or had floated up from the river and he said it was coming downstream. Can we reach out and remove some of it? No, it takes special equipment (gloves, etc) because of the poor water quality.

Although we paddled in mid-afternoon, we did see some birds - the Egrets, several Black-crowned Night Herons, ducks, and Barn Swallows. David said there were more birds in the cool of the morning.
Cliff Swallows had built their nests under the I-71 bridge. The Muddy Fork was straightened when they put in the Interstate because it was in the way. In many places, the creek in channelized in concrete banks to keep it from eroding and meandering.
 David says there are "bank beavers" in the creek, that don't build dams. I just saw a rat scampering along.
When the river floods, water can back up into the creek of course. MSD built a pumping station with gates to block the flow from the river at those times. Then as the creek builds up from the rain, they pump it over the flood wall, and back into the river. I understand that MSD (Metropolitan Sewer District) has a big problem and not enough funds to deal with it. Over time, they have been short-sighted, and we are paying the price now. When the storm sewers can't handle the rain, it flows directly into the creek, with raw sewage and anything else that washes into the drains from the street. It wasn't flooding for our trip, of course, and David wasn't sure why the gates were closed, preventing us from going any further upstream.
We got out to look around, and saw the next big problem. The city impound lot is right next door, and gasoline and oil leak out of the vehicles directly into the creek. There is a move to put the impound lot somewhere else and let the new Bontanica Garden have this property. The creek banks were also used as a dumping ground for tons of concrete slabs when the Belevedere was removed along the river downtown.

David Wicks has retired from teaching, but is dedicating his life to these waterways. You can learn more about his efforts at https://louisvillewaterways.wordpress.com/ . You may become as engrossed with the issues as he is.

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