EKU Faculty and Staff Scholarship

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Stream systems are often affected by anthropogenic activities that affect water quality and stream ecosystems. Land use typically determines the type and quantity of anthropogenic contaminants entering natural waters. The Otter Creek watershed (170 km2; Madison County, Kentucky) consists predominantly of pasture and rural housing, with some cropland. The basin also receives runoff from the town of Richmond and a sewage treatment plant operates within the watershed. We measured concentrations of nutrients (phosphate, ammonium, nitrate) and fecal microbes to discover levels of anthropogenic contaminants affecting water quality and to identify contaminant sources.

We sampled 4 times in the summer field season of 2015 over a variety of conditions. Nutrients were measured colorimetrically using established colorimetric methods. The abundance of Escherichia coli was quantified using IDEXX rapid-assay techniques.

Phosphate (0 – 0.5 mg/L) and ammonium (<0.1 mg/L) concentrations were low for all sampling days, whereas nitrate was the dominant anthropogenic nutrient contaminant showing concentrations of 1 to 3 mg/L. Consistently higher levels of phosphate and nitrate were found in the waters of Dreaming Creek, which drains urban Richmond. High ammonium levels were sporadic and associated with pasture. High E. coli counts occurred in Dreaming Creek, the upper reaches of Otter Creek, and proximal to pastures.

Both point- and non-point sources exist for contaminants. The sewage treatment plant is a definite point source for nitrate and less so for phosphate and ammonium. Non-point sources include high concentrations of nitrate, phosphate, and fecal microbes occur along Dreaming Creek, likely due to leaky sewage distribution pipes. Spikes in ammonium concentration are associated with cattle pasture, another non-point source.

We also tested contaminant levels immediately before and after a rainfall event associated with tropical storm Bill (June 22). Phosphate and ammonium levels decreased, whereas nitrate increased significantly. E. coli counts also increased dramatically, after the rain event.