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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Its majestic scenery and bubbling creeks cover 162 miles in Kentucky, but parts of the Floyds Fork watershed are so polluted that the pathogens in it could make you sick, a WDRB News investigation confirmed.
The WDRB News investigation collected water samples from Floyds Fork which found levels of E. Coli more than double - sometimes two and half times higher - than the maximum acceptable level set by federal government.
E. Coli and fecal coliform are found in the waste of humans and warm-blooded animals. Both are in Floyds Fork. A 350-page report by the state's Division of Water released just a week before the WDRB News report found high levels of both E. Coli and fecal coliform.
The report listed several suspected sources including livestock and human waste, storm sewer runoff and wastewater treatment plants that can sometimes become over-burdened following heavy rains.
The Metropolitan Sewer District will spend $50 million in the approaching years as part of an effort to clean up Floyds Fork and get the water quality to a level that is acceptable for recreational use.
Of the more than 50,000 miles of waterways in Kentucky, more than 6,000 miles are listed as "impaired," according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Kentucky's Division of Water says Floyds Fork is still safe to use, but the assistant director cautions against putting your head in the water, and says you should never drink it.
The state is now seeking public comment on possible solutions for cleaning it up. Those wishing to learn updates on the Total Maximum Daily Load can email the state at email@example.com.
"It needs a lot of improvement," said Teena Halbig, a microbiologist and member of the Floyds Fork Environmental Association. "There are a lot of problems with it."
Sections of Floyds Fork are polluted, filled with bacteria that can cause illness after swimming, wading, boating, or fishing.
"Yeah, we always swim in it, we fish in it," said Thomas Wichmann. "Yeah, whenever."
It's a popular spot for kayakers, with the growth of the parks system in Jefferson County. A groundbreaking held just days ago marked the final phase in the expansion of the Parklands at Floyds Fork. More and more people and their pets are using it.
WDRB began collecting samples in late May near a popular canoe launch just south of Shelbyville Road. One sample, sent to an environmental lab, found E. Coli levels at 501 colonies per 100 ml -- or more than double the maximum level of 240.
So we did it again in June.
A few weeks after we tested the water, just following a significant rainfall, we tested again.
One sample came back with an E. Coli count of 613, or more than 2.5 times higher than the maximum level set by the feds.
Further south, at Floyds Fork Park, we took another test sample. This sample, taken just yards away from where kids were swimming with their heads underwater, also found the presence of E. Coli -- but at a lower level (139.1/100ml) considered acceptable for the summer months.
Dr. Paul McKinney, a public health specialist at the University of Louisville, says those in boats should be okay and should not fear getting sick.
"If you are actually in the water physically, you can get any of the contaminates in through a cut, splash in the eye or mouth," he said. "That's a significant risk. If you are physically in it, totally immersed."
Those we spoke to had split opinions about whether they would continue to swim here.
"If it's contaminated I'm just going to stay out of it," said Jesus Nova.
"We've heard that the water is really dirty, but we don't care about it," said Thomas Wichmann.
Halbig is a microbiologist, but she's also President of Floyds Fork Environmental Association, a watchdog group concerned with the waterway's condition.
"If you are a healthy person, you probably won't have any problem," Halbig said. "But we still don't need those things in the creek... It needs improvement," she said, laughing.
So how do the pollutants get there?
"Probably a variety of different sources," said Dr. McKinney. "From sewer treatment plants that are occasionally overwhelmed and runoff from farms and things like that."
The answers may be found in a 350-page report by the Kentucky Division of Water.
Brian Bingham is the regulatory services director at the Metropolitan Sewer District.
"I really believe this is one of those 10,000 pieces that add up to a problem," he said. "No one person in our community and entity is the one that we can point to and say, 'If they weren't doing that, they would be okay.'"
The report notes suspected sources, including human and livestock waste, storm sewer runoff and wastewater treatment plants -- including eight in Jefferson County noted in the report as having high levels of fecal coliform.
Bingham says MSD is spending millions to address the problem.
"For those that might point the finger at MSD, how much of this is your fault?" Bingham asked. "Let me state it this way: I don't think any of it is our fault. We take a product that most people don't want to think about, and we clean it and discharge it back into the public."
Instead, Bingham says there is shared responsibility among humans, his agency, developers and those living near the area. MSD will spend $50 million fixing the watershed.
"In protecting this watershed, are ratepayers going to see an increase?" he asked. "Ratepayers are paying for everything we do. We have no other funding source that we charge to our rate payers."
The short answer is: yes, over time ratepayers will pay more -- but Bingham says that's for all of MSD's improvements.
MSD and other stakeholders -- Bingham says -- have been asking for this report for years. He says it may hold the necessary information to help create better guidelines to fix what's in the water.