WDRB Special Report | Investigation reveals water at Floyds Fork Creek may be harmful

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A months-long investigation reveals something in the waters of Floyds Fork Creek could be harmful to your health.

It's touted as one of Louisville's most beautiful parks, but a WDRB investigation reveals there is something lurking in the waters at Floyds Fork Creek.

And it's not just dirty, but it could also be dangerous.

The Parklands of Floyds Fork is a 4,000 acre recreational oasis in east Louisville. The donor-supported public park system is one of the largest metropolitan parks in the nation.

“Even though it's set in an urban park, it really feels like you are part of nature and you can get away from it all,” said park visitor James Stapleton.

Visitors will find biking and hiking trails, kayaking and fishing. Floyds Fork Creek is a magnet for summer visitors.

“We play in the splash park, we swim in the creek. We love this park,” said visitor Aubrey Gregory.

The picturesque creek meanders close to 20 miles through the Parklands.

It looks inviting, but some are alarmed by what’s in the water. WDRB collected water samples in May, June and July at the Parklands’ multiple parks to reveal the amount of fecal coliform in the popular creek. Fecal coliform is bacteria found in human and animal feces and can lead to ear and skin infections and gastrointestinal illnesses.

The state requires water to be tested five times a month. If the geometric average of fecal coliform is above 200, swimming is not recommended and is considered hazardous to your health.

WDRB tested once each month, but found alarming fecal coliform levels in some of the tests.

At Beckley Creek Park, the levels were acceptable in May (108) and June (40), but high in July (333).

Downstream at Pope Lick Park, May’s numbers were more than double the acceptable limit (586). June tested low (90) and July’s numbers were triple the limit (600).

Here’s how the newly-opened paddling access at The Strand fared. May’s numbers were above the limit (328), the numbers dropped in June (0), then tested extremely high in July (586).

Turkey Run Park tested low in May (150) and June (150). The numbers then spiked in July to double the limit (516).

WDRB's final stop was Broad Run Park, which is the last takeout spot for paddlers. It tested high each month. May’s numbers were high, (420) June’s numbers were just above the limit (216) and July’s sample produced the highest number of our testing (676).

WDRB took water samples to Astbury Water Technology in Clarksville, Indiana, where chemist Bob Fuchs has been sampling water for 50 years.

“We've had some above and some below. You cannot conclude that the entire area is grossly contaminated,” said Fuchs.

Here’s what Fuchs had to say about letting his kids or grandchildren swim in the creek after reviewing the data. “No. I would not.”

However, WDRB's results show the levels of fecal coliform are within the acceptable range for people to safely kayak, canoe and fish.

To find out more about what causes increased levels, WDRB turned to Karen Schaffer and Russell Barnett.

“Waste water treatment plants, septic tanks -- it could be from any type of animal that you can think of, warm blooded, cold blooded,” said Barnett.

Barnett’s the director of the Kentucky Institute for the Environment and Sustainable Development. Schaffer’s a retired environmental consultant.

"The land is what you need to look at. If you look at the land, that's a mirror of what the water quality is going to be," said Barnett.

Barnett and Schaffer are part of the volunteer group Salt River Watershed Watch. The group has been monitoring the creek for more than 15 years. Research shows bacteria levels have increased over the years, because more homes are being built along the creek.

“Conditions have worsened. What I've noticed is that it's highly dependent on the flow in Floyd’s Fork. When the stream flow is higher because of recent rainfall, that's when the bacteria levels tend to be higher,” said Schaffer.

Back at the Parklands, WDRB was taking a final sample in July at Beckley Creek Park and spoke to Aubrey Gregory, who was watching his daughter play in the creek. Remember, previous testing showed acceptable levels of fecal coliform, but WDRB didn’t know this sample would come back high.

When asked if the levels are high in the area and would he allow his kids to swim in it, Gregory responded, “No. No I would not. If it tested high, I would pull them.”

Other visitors had mixed reactions about harmful bacteria in the water.

“We try not to stick our feet in. We only get in the water when we have to port. It’s enough to keep me from canoeing or kayaking,” said park visitor Leslie O’Brien.

“I guess I wouldn’t fish in this area if I would have known that. I would rather fish where it's cleaner,” park visitor Ryan Dietz said.

“The river is definitely an area of public concern. It’s so close to an urban center and I think there are a lot of first timers out here. I think it would help to have warnings posted along the river to let people know what they are getting into,” said park visitor James Stapleton.

Below are WDRB's May test results.

Below are WDRB's June test results.

Below are WDRB's July test results.

Officials at the Parklands declined WDRB's request for an interview.

Click here to learn about the non-profit group Salt River Watershed Watch.

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