Editorial supports cleaning up Lexington’s Creeks

The context of this discussion is the EPA consent decree and the city’s response. We need to meet better than minimum standards if we want to let or dogs, let alone children near our urban creeks.

Wading too long in dirty water
Lexington Herald-Leader editorial

Sunday, Apr. 12, 2009

One of the most engaging, enduring images of summertime is children playing in water. This newspaper has run countless photos of kids splashing in streams, glorying in the sudden white water produced by a summer storm.

What we usually don’t tell you, what most people don’t know, what those children certainly can’t know is that in Fayette County that water is probably so dirty it’s dangerous, and especially after those storms.

On another page, there’s likely to be a photo of a homeowner wading in filthy water in a flooded basement. On the worst days, there are stories about people who were swept away to their deaths by raging waters.

That, in a nutshell, is why the Urban County Council should approve the Water Quality Management Fee that will be brought before it on Tuesday.

That’s the message of those red lines on the map accompanying this editorial. Those are streams that, in the arcane language of environmental bureaucrats, don’t support their designated uses — including human contact. The larger map shows where, and it is almost everywhere, flooding and sewer overflows were reported after heavy rains in September 2006.

This water — that runs behind back yards, across roads, through parks and farms in our community — is dangerous to humans and other animals. On horse farms, they build fences to keep valuable animals away from that water.

You won’t see that in the glossy brochures produced to lure new investment here. The city Web page doesn’t feature it along with scenic photos of our beautiful landscape. It probably didn’t come up when we made our bid for the World Equestrian Games, and it’s highly unlikely that Lexmark, Toyota or the University of Kentucky mention it to top prospects. We really doubt anyone pointed it out to Coach John Calipari.

It’s our dirty little secret. Except it’s not little and it’s not secret.
We’ve known about it for a long time; so has the Kentucky Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet, which does the field work to produce the ratings on the streams map (there are a lot more streams and creeks and they’re probably dirty, too, but just aren’t rated).

Finally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency knows about it, which is why we must have a fee whether we like it or not. The EPA sued Lexington in 2006 over violations of the Clean Water Act. The settlement we’ve reached requires us to, literally, clean up our act.
Why is our water so dirty? Simply, because we allow too much dirt, trash, toxins and human and animal waste to wash into it.

This happens because developers strip and grade land without doing enough to prevent mud from washing away in the first rain; because too many businesses and individuals dispose of chemicals, oils and other wastes by dumping them into the storm sewers or onto the ground; because so many thousands of acres of land that could absorb, clean and slow down water are covered with buildings and parking lots, so that when it rains everything on or near the surface washes rapidly into our creeks and streams.

And that’s just the dirty part. There’s also the danger when storm water rages so hard that basements flood, streets become impassable and sometimes, as happened just two and a half years ago, people are swept to their deaths.

A task force of the council has worked hard and publicly to consider the steps we need to take to fix all this and what it will cost. Objections to the $4.32-a-month fee seem to fall into one big category: the timing is bad.

True enough, these are hard times. It’s also true that the agreement with the EPA isn’t signed yet so, technically, we could sit on our hands for a while. There are a lot of good reasons why this argument doesn’t fly, but the most important is that this work has to be done, not just because the federal government is forcing us, but for the safety of our community.

Politically, there’s never a good time for a new or increased fee. Even if the council approves this one, it will take at least until January of next year to work out the logistics to begin collecting the fee. The economy may be on an upswing by then; if not the council can choose to reconsider.

But for now, delay is not acceptable.

We’ve sat on our hands for a generation. Council members tempted to wait a little longer should visit one of the red-lined streams, take off their shoes and let the water run over their bare feet. If they dare.