Thirty years ago in 1993, the Nobel Peace prize was awarded to Mandela and de Klerk, hundreds of levees failed along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers during the Great Flood of 1993, the first Beanie Babies were sold, the European Union was established, Al Gore was talking about climate change, the Clean Water Act was 20 years old, and the Kentucky Waterways Alliance (KWA) was founded.
The world has changed a lot in the last thirty years. What hasn’t changed is the KWA commitment to protect, restore, and celebrate Kentucky’s 90,000 miles of waterways as a source of cleaner and safer drinking water, to protect wildlife and endangered species, and to preserve the beauty of our greatest natural resource.
In the Beginning
The origins of KWA are reflected in the word ‘Alliance’. Eighty representatives from government, industry, community organizations and individuals from across the state, motioned to create a formal organization to work together on waterway issues. As a result, KWA was incorporated and granted non-profit status in 1993. River Network provided start-up funds with in-kind support coming from various state and local agencies.
As an alliance, we have placed a priority on working with communities across the state on local watershed issues. Much of our first decade was dedicated to helping small watershed groups. Over this decade we helped over 50 watershed groups across the state from Paducah to Prestonsburg, Louisville to Bowling Green, Covington to London protect their river or stream and to educate the community about the importance of clean water. KWA was instrumental in the founding of Watershed Watch of Kentucky, resulting in thousands of citizens who have been trained to take water samples and have learned about their local streams as well as about their larger watershed. In 2022, KWA’s Watershed Network program was established to continue the work of previous decades with the goal of increasing collective impact to improve water quality for wildlife and people who rely on clean water.
As an Alliance we have and continue to advocate for better policies and programs at the state and national levels. Over the years, KWA staff has served as watchdog over permits that discharge pollutants into Kentucky’s waters by reviewing, commenting, and in some cases challenging, bad permits. KWA staff reviewed and commented on hundreds of permit applications, helping to improve the permits and thereby protect our waterways. A citizen suit filed by KWA against the USEPA set national precedent on antidegradation that helped provide better protection for over 90% of Kentucky’s waterways. We successfully advocated to the Division of Water and U.S. Forest Service for the addition of new Outstanding National Resource Waters that permanently protected over 62 miles of streams and 2040 acres of wetlands. We fought and succeeded to keep a cold-water habitat designation for 16 Kentucky streams, which protected their use as trout streams. KWA won an 8 yearlong court battle to ensure there will be no more valley fills from coal mines under generic nationwide permits. KWA won a lawsuit requiring a more thorough assessment of the impacts of any nationwide permit before reauthorization.
As we have seen time and time again, an impaired, polluted waterway can be restored. KWA helped co-author a Watershed Planning Guidebook, a valuable resource for watershed groups all over Kentucky and we have helped author many watershed plans through the years. Six years ago, KWA began implementing the Red River Watershed plan in Eastern Kentucky. This nationally designated Wild & Scenic River has benefited from cleanups, environmental education, and septic system repair and replacement.
KWA established and managed the Kentucky Aquatic Resources Fund (KARF), created to provide a sustainable source of funding for aquatic ecosystems in Kentucky. Outcomes from the partnerships created through this fund resulted in the removal of the Green River Dam 6 in 2017, the Barren River Dam 1 in 2022, and next the Green River Dam 5 will be removed. We have hosted and coordinated thousands of volunteers in river and stream cleanups across the state and removed hundreds of tons of trash from our waterways.
In 2022, KWA began working with the National Wildlife Federation and other partners on the creation of an Ohio River Restoration Plan which will be presented to Congress in late 2023. This plan, if enacted, could bring millions of federal dollars to the Ohio River Basin to protect and restore it for future generations.
In 2016 the “celebration of waterways' was added to the mission of KWA during a strategic planning process. KWA believes that our waterways are worthy of celebration through participation in community events, art, music, film, photography, and writing. KWA believes when we celebrate the beauty and joy our waterways offer, it offers a chance to inspire activism and a love for nature. We protect what we love. Celebrations through the years have included hosting our Wild & Scenic Film Festival, the establishment of a KWA artist-in-residence program, Aveda Earth Month events, the Wild & Scenic Red River Festival, participation in AFLOAT, inspired by the art and environmentalism of Harlan and Anna Hubbard, and participation Ripple Effects, a water themed photography contest for students. This year, KWA is holding our 30th anniversary celebration, an evening of music and film, on August 18 at Waterfront Botanical Gardens on the bank of Beargrass Creek, Louisville’s primary urban stream.
Looking to the Future
While much has been accomplished, much work is ahead. We know there will be continued threats to the Clean Water Act, that bad actors will put profit before our greatest natural resource, and that Black communities and communities of color will bear a disproportionate burden from polluted water and other environmental harms. We also believe that when we come together, resolved in our commitment to clean, healthy waterways, our actions can make a difference. Kentucky Waterways Alliance, its members, and partners will continue to strive to improve the quality of our waterways, for all Kentuckians and our neighbors downstream. Please join us!