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Soil, Water Nutrients 'Too Much of a Good Thing'

Kentucky Division of Water
Kentucky Nutrient Priority map

Kentucky releases new plan to reduce excess nutrients such as nitrogen, ammonia and phosphorus in soil and groundwater

Kentucky soil and groundwater is full of naturally occurring nutrients — actually — too much of these nutrients.

These include phosphorus, ammonia and nitrogen, which are only bad for organisms and the environment when there’s too much of them.

The Kentucky Division of Water is working to reduce these excess nutrients in groundwater with an updated framework for action released this fall.

Josiah Frey is Nutrient Reduction Success Coordinator. He said one source of excess nutrients is farm runoff, but there are others.

“The other driver is erosion,” he said. “Stormwater control is important; wastewater treatment, whether as a septic system at an individual residence or a wastewater treatment plant that collects waste from a number of individuals; those are all sources.”

This new reduction plan prioritizes investments and encourages cooperative efforts to decrease these nutrients. Frey also wants to promote an online tool for farmers to develop their own reduction plan.

“Those are plans that producers develop to protect water quality,” Frey said. “It's a state program that has been in effect since 1994.”

Panther Creek in Owensboro is identified as a high-nutrient watershed — and a priority area — according to the Kentucky Division of Water.

“That watershed near Owensboro just so happens to consistently have higher total nitrogen to phosphorus when you're comparing it with watersheds throughout the state,” Frey said.

This means the site is a higher priority for grant funding for excess nutrient remediation. Excess nutrients are manifested in water that tastes bad — but also more harmful ways.

“ … also the total mass of excess nutrients can help feed algal blooms," Frey said. "There is something called ‘harmful algal blooms’ that are toxic that can make people and pets sick; It hurts tourism.”

For example, he said the swimming portion of an Iron Man competition held in Louisville in 2019 had to be cancelled because of a toxic algal bloom. It can even reduce fertility in livestock.

Frey said, in safe amounts, elements like phosphorus are naturally occurring and necessary.

“It's important for plant growth and for animal health,” he said. “Because of the high phosphorus soils in central Kentucky, for example, that's part of the reason why the thoroughbred industry is there.”

"The nutrients are important for our local water bodies for the health of our streams, but too much just like anything, too much of a good thing can be harmful."

Go to eec.ky.gov for more information.