Water Resources Research Act Program

Details for Project ID 2018KY279B

Evaluation of Untreated Karst Groundwater as Community Water Sources, Barren and Monroe Counties, Kentucky

Institute: Kentucky
Year Established: 2018 Start Date: 2018-03-01 End Date: 2019-02-28
Total Federal Funds: $5,000 Total Non-Federal Funds: $10,000

Principal Investigators: Chris Groves, LeeAnn Bledsoe, Cayla Baughn

Abstract: Much of Kentucky has well-developed karst aquifer/landscape systems developed in relatively pure limestones of the Pennyroyal Plateau. Groundwater here is typically very vulnerable to contamination. Where agricultural land use overlies these aquifers, groundwater commonly exceeds drinking water standards for fecal bacteria and agricultural chemicals, and so the use of untreated karst water supplies in Kentucky has been largely eliminated. However, there are still communities that rely on such water and this may represent underappreciated, if local, public health threats. Residents of at least one area of Quaker and Mennonite communities in Monroe County, Kentucky, rely on karst springs and cave water with limited, individual treatment strategies, and in some cases none. There are various perceptions of water safety. The hydrogeologic, water quality, social and economic conditions in this part of Monroe County may serve as a model for other similar water supply challenges in Kentucky’s rural karst areas. While the Mississippian-aged limestones of Kentucky’s Pennyroyal Plateau often form very productive aquifers, as is common in karst flow systems, water within them is typically highly vulnerable to contamination (e.g. White, 1988; Currens, 2002; Palmer, 2007). Widespread agriculture in the region, including both livestock and row crops, can introduce contaminants to groundwater including fecal bacteria, pesticides, and fertilizers. Such groundwater is typically not safe for water supplies without treatment. Most water systems in the region rely on surface water. While there is a perception among some people that spring water is safe and of high quality, in general the opposite is true for karst springs and the use of untreated karst groundwater has been largely eliminated in Kentucky. There appear to be, however, at least some communities where untreated karst cave or spring water is still being relied on for drinking water for a variety of practical and social reasons. Southcentral Kentucky, with extensive karst development, is home to numerous “simple living” Mennonite, Amish, and Quaker communities who in some cases may forgo various technologies including electricity. This appears in some cases to include disinfection of drinking water from likely contaminated karst aquifers, which in turn may be an unrecognized, if local, public health problem. The extent of this potential issue is not known, in large part because these communities are to some degree insular. There has been only a single study to evaluate the impacts of Mennonite lifestyles on presence of fecal bacteria contamination of water (Amraotkar et al., 2015), and this did not consider hydrogeologic variables, including karst. This proposal represents the first phase of a new research program for our lab whose long-term goals are to use this part of Southcentral Kentucky as a demonstration site to 1) evaluate the nature and extent of contaminated, untreated karst water supplies, 2) develop a participatory, combined educational/technical approach to raise awareness of water quality and risks, and 3) evaluate a range of potential water resource protection strategies.