Highways encircle downtown Louisville radiating outward like tree rings. Viewed from above, the city streets and planned subdivisions organize themselves into tightly woven knots of suburban sprawl.
To the southeast, beyond Interstate 265, the sprawl gives way to rolling hills, forests and meadows intermingled with pastures and single-family homes.
The Parklands of Floyds Fork has conserved nearly 4,000 acres of this area’s natural landscape, preserving habitat for more than 100 species of birds, including the American Bald Eagle, and federally threatened plants like the Kentucky Gladecress, which grows nowhere else in the world.
At the center of the Parklands is Floyds Fork — a 62-mile creek that passes through Jefferson County on its way to meet the Salt River, and eventually, the Ohio River.
Developers, government bureaucrats, conservationists and residents know what’s coming to Southeast Louisville: the slow creep of concrete and asphalt, of planned communities and sanitary sewer systems.
Most recognize the importance of the stream at the center of the Parklands, but critics remain skeptical whether the stream can bear the weight of further urban encroachment.
They fear the collapse of the stream could have consequences for both the environment, the park and future development in the region.
Covington By The Park
The debate over the future of Floyds Fork bubbled over into a city planning commission meeting in early August. Developers sought approval of preliminary plans for Covington by the Park, a subdivision off Taylorsville Lake Road that may include 633 lots and 352 apartments on nearly 240 acres. The plans also have another 120 acres of open space and about 22 percent of the tree canopy will be preserved — slightly exceeding the county’s conservation subdivision guidelines.
Attorney Bill Bardenwerper, representing developer Long Run Creek Properties LLC, stood in front of the commission at the meeting. He said the plans are faithful to the principles outlined in the conservation subdivision guidelines.
“The elements work to the preservation of environmental aesthetic, cultural historic assets, new residential development, to do it in clusters as much as possible,” he told the commission.
The Fisherville Area Neighborhood Association and the Friends of Floyds Fork, an environmental advocacy organization, were among those who opposed the development. They raised concerns about additional traffic congestion, light pollution and connectivity of open spaces on the site.
But primarily, they opposed any development that could degrade the quality of the Floyds Fork watershed.
Runoff from the proposed development, combined with an increased load of wastewater flushing down the stream, presents an environmental and ecological threat that could irreparably damage the river, said Jeff Frank, conservationist and Friends of Floyds Fork founder.
“Oils and grease and bake pads and fertilizers and Chemlon and herbicides and every bit of excrement that your dog or mine or the deer put in the woods washes off and you have a bacteria problem on Floyds Fork and you have a runoff and nutrient pollution problem on Floyds Fork,” Frank said.
The Health Of Floyds Fork
It’s easy to imagine the health of a stream as simple and linear. What happens upstream does affect downstream, but often it’s more complicated. Along the 62 miles of Floyds Fork, there are parts of the watershed that are in pretty good condition and other parts where the state does not recommend coming in contact with the water.
Here’s how the Kentucky Environmental Quality Commission described it:
“For thousands of years, the creek flowed relatively unimpacted by man until the modern world intervened and brought with it the pollution that trails an industrial society. These contaminants include raw sewage, sediment, pesticides from lawn chemicals, farming, golf courses, plus highway salts, oils and grease.”
The section of Floyds Fork that snakes through the Parklands and around Fisherville — near the planned Covington by the Park development — has high levels of bacteria considered unsafe for swimming, wading and fishing. But the fish, the amphibians and the rest of the riparian life in the stream are healthy, according to the Division of Water Quality.
Kentucky Division of Water Director Peter Goodmann said the river is technically considered “impaired” under the standards of the Clean Water Act, but is relatively safe during typical dry weather.
It’s unclear exactly why the stream is impaired but Goodmann said it is likely because of urban, suburban and agricultural runoff. Impervious surfaces like concrete and asphalt expedite that runoff as stormwater picks up all of our human contaminants and washes them into the nearest watershed.
And he said that’s a problem for any watershed that’s facing significant development, Floyds Fork included.
“What you’re doing by increasing impervious areas like roads, parking lots, roofs, you’re expediting water, we design things to shed water,” Goodmann said. “That water gets expedited to the stream, if that runoff is encountering pollutants it will expedite those pollutants to the streams.”
On that point both Frank, the conservationist, and the director of the division of water quality agree, but they disagree over the impact that treated sewage from the Floyds Fork Water Quality Treatment Center has on the creek.
An Additional Waste Stream
Conservationist Jeff Frank says the aquatic life in Floyds Fork is hanging on by a thread. Nutrients from treated wastewater that’s released into the river are producing algal blooms that suck up all the oxygen and cause aquatic life to suffocate — particularly some of the stream’s rare freshwater mussels.
“Floyds Fork is already overloaded on nutrients. You know the wastewater plant does a good job of reducing nutrients and sterilizing the wastewater, but it’s essentially liquid fertilizer,” he said.
Data from the United State Geologic Survey indicates dissolved oxygen levels are dipping close to — and at times below — the state’s standards for healthy aquatic life. But the most recent results are from raw data that hasn’t yet been verified by USGS scientists.
Frank said the extra sewage coming from Covington by the Park might be enough to push the stream over the edge.
Goodmann, from the Division of Water, said the waste treatment plant is not creating a nutrient problem in the stream.
“They’re only allowed to take so much. They have a capacity to treat, which is a design capacity to treat and they are not exceeding it and we would not permit them to exceed it,” Goodmann said. “So I don’t believe that would be the source of eutrophication in that part of the watershed.”
The most recent report available on Floyds Fork water quality found the total dissolved oxygen was safe for aquatic life and rated overall habitat quality as “good” for the area around Old Taylorsville Road, according to 2015 data from a Metropolitan Sewer District Report.
MSD Chief of Operations Brian Bingham told the Planning Commission the Floyds Fork Water Quality Treatment Center is the most efficient wastewater treatment plant in the state.
“When people talk about that we are the villain in all of this, it’s kind of offensive,” he told the Planning Commission earlier this month.
But Kentucky Waterways Alliance Director Ward Wilson said the fact that the MSD’s treatment plant is efficient doesn’t address the question of whether added flow might cause problems.
“It’s a newer plant and seems to be well-operated, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a source of nutrients,” he said.
There are sections of Floyds Fork in far worse shape than the section of creek that runs through the Parklands. In some parts of the creek, aquatic life is already struggling because of pollution, much of it caused by old and poorly maintained local wastewater treatment systems called package plants, Goodmann said.
But many of those old package plants have been removed in recent years and more are going offline soon, he said.
Additionally, the Division of Water is working on a new study to understand how runoff and nutrients affect the watershed.
“What we’re trying to do is figure out what the carrying capacity of the stream is for nutrients before it becomes a problem,” Goodmann said. “Part of that is identifying the major sources.”
The Future Of Floyds Fork
Conservationists and locals say it’s the Planning Commission’s responsibility to tread carefully and ensure that developments like Covington by the Park don’t irreparably damage Floyds Fork with runoff and wastewater.
To that end, the developers of Covington by the Park recently sold 158 acres to the Future Fund for conservation. The land is one of the largest remaining forested areas along Floyds Fork and will help provide a buffer between the proposed development and the stream.
Bardenwerper, the land developer attorney, told the Planning Commission the proposed development meets all the conservation subdivision guidelines and their approval is based on those standards.
“As of today, our obligation on that whole issue that you are going to hear tonight about the quality of Floyds Fork and whether [Division of Water] and [Metropolitan Sewer District] are properly regulating discharges into it, our position is we are following the requirements of the regulator, MSD,” Bardenwerper said.
But the conservation subdivision guidelines do allow the commission to consider the preservation of unique and sensitive natural resources. And Commissioner Emma Smith said she’d like to see some promise that Floyds Fork will be protected.
“Floyds Fork is a unique plan and I do have a background in biology so I do know the possible harm that could be dealt to this place, it’s unique,” she said. “A lot of energy and time and effort has been put into preserving it.”
The Commission ultimately decided to send the developers back to the drawing board to make revisions including increasing access to green spaces. They did not mention the creek.
The next meeting is set for the evening of September 27.