Citizen Science on Kentucky Lakes













Citizen Science on Kentucky Lakes

by Ward Wilson, KWA and Malissa McAlister, Kentucky River Watershed Watch

Watershed Watch is a statewide volunteer water quality monitoring program that has hundreds of participants. KWA has supported Watershed Watch groups since we partnered with the Sierra Club and Kentucky Division of Water to establish the program over 20 years ago. We are the fiscal sponsor of the Green River and Salt River Watershed Watch groups. Citizen science is a way for people to learn about their home waterways and contribute to the understanding of its health. This article was written by Malissa McAlister of the Kentucky River Watershed Watch about a new initiative that addresses lakes. We would encourage anyone that loves our Kentucky lakes to get involved in Watershed Watch and celebrate Lakes Appreciation Month in July.

In 2017, Watershed Watch of Kentucky and the Kentucky Division of Water partnered to initiate a pilot program to enlist citizens in monitoring lake quality.  The number and size of lakes in Kentucky makes it impossible for state agency staff to do all the water quality measurements we need to understand the health of these important waters.  This pilot effort started with Herrington Lake in central Kentucky and Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley in western Kentucky and has since expanded.

Volunteers are trained in an hour on their lake. Samplers learn how to make general observations about the lake conditions and take a measurement with a Secchi disk.  A Secchi disk is a black and white disk that measures the depth that light penetrates into the water. at which is disappears.  This simple measurement was developed in 1865 by Italian astronomer Angelo Secchi and has been used by lake scientists for over 100 years to monitor lakes.

Lake sampling is done every two weeks when the NASA-USGS Landsat satellites pass over Kentucky. The Kentucky Division of Water uses the field observations and satellite data to run modeling programs that track and predict lake water quality.  issues and trends, especially with regard to the potential for harmful algal blooms (HABs).  Harmful algal blooms happen when naturally occurring blue-green algae grow out of control.  They can produce toxins that make people and pets sick, as well as cause taste and odor problems in drinking water and disrupt lake ecology by reducing dissolved oxygen levels.

The lake sampling program has created a network of people who can report the first signs of harmful algal outbreaks.  When a bloom is suspected, they report to the Division of Water and their professional field staff follow up with further testing to determine if swimming advisories are necessary.  Already, lake samplers have helped identify likely blooms on Herrington Lake.

If you are interested in helping track lake health by becoming a lake sampler, please contact the Watershed Watch Volunteer Coordinator, JoAnn Palmer at or (859) 846-4905.  More samplers mean more eyes on our lakes and a better awareness of any problems that may need attention.

To help track HABs, look for surface algae that appears as:

  • Grainy up close, like sawdust
  • Bright green or greenish blue, paint-like
  • Red or brown slicks

If a HAB is suspected, avoid swimming in or near algal blooms, don’t drink untreated water, rinse fish fillets, keep pets away from the water, and seek medical attention if you become ill.