Several years ago while attending a conference, I chose a session on “Rain Gardens.” As a horticulturist with a penchant for native and heirloom plants, I found the concept intriguing.

To my surprise, the presenter started out by asking if we could identify our watershed. “My what?” This led into an unexpected but undeniably interesting talk about storm water runoff, storm drains emptying directly into our streams, and “best management practices” for handling this runoff – finally, we were talking about rain gardens!

Little did I realize that a few years later I would be planning watershed festivals in four nearby counties, and using an Enviroscape portable, interactive model as an educational tool in classrooms throughout Central and Eastern Kentucky. Now I am the one asking students “So where does your water shed?”

Now I know that a watershed is the land area that drains (or sheds) rainwater runoff into a common water body (and that land use within that area affects the quality of the water). In Kentucky, with our Karst topography, this affects both surface and underground water.

Ironically, when using the watershed Enviroscape, the kids’ favorite part of the demonstration is watching the water with red food coloring pour out of the factory and into the stream (indicating “point source” pollution). But, as educators, we focus more on “nonpoint source,” or “runoff,” pollutants that are carried in rainwater runoff, and what we, as conscientious citizens, can do to prevent that pollution.

The easiest of all these “best management” practices is: Don’t litter. Take personal responsibility, recycle and make sure that your bins have secure lids.

Next, use fertilizers and pesticides sparingly, opting for composting yard and kitchen waste and choosing other ways of deterring pests, like companion planting. Install a rain garden to capture runoff in your yard and/or a rain barrel to catch rooftop runoff and conserve water.

Plant native flowers, grasses and trees, with deep roots, to prevent erosion and reduce topical watering. This is especially important near waterways, creating a “riparian” buffer to filter out pollutants.

Pick up after your pets, and if you farm, keep livestock out of the streams to prevent erosion and large amounts of waste from entering our watershed.

Maintain your septic system to prevent human waste from entering our streams. Maintain vehicles to prevent leakage of oil, gas and other fluids. And remember, our storm drains lead directly into our streams, so don’t sweep any contaminants into the street or down storm drains.

I participate in volunteer water sampling for Kentucky River Watershed Watch in my local watershed, the Mock’s Branch/Spears Creek sub-watershed of the Dix River. I find that identifying my watershed and participating in testing gives me a personal investment in the quality of the water that flows behind my home.

Bluegrass Greensource is partnering with two Central Kentucky Earth Day Festivals that focus on our watersheds this month: The Garrard and Lincoln County Earth Day Festival at Garrard County High School, held last Saturday in Lancaster; and the Boyle Co. Earth Day Festival at Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus in Danville on Saturday, April 25, from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Bluegrass Greensource will also participate in a Cane Run Watershed Celebration at Night Market in Lexington in May 1, and a Kentucky River Watershed Festival to be held at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill on Sept. 5. Come on out and join us!

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Deborah Larkin joined Greensource in 2010 as an environmental educator. She works with numerous schools in Fayette County as part of Greensource’s partnership with LFUCG and is responsible for outreach activities in Boyle, Clark, Garrard and Lincoln counties. She received her bachelor’s in horticulture from the University of Kentucky. Before coming to Greensource, Larkin worked for 27 years at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, near Harrodsburg, where she researched and re-established the 19th century apple orchard, herb garden and heirloom seed industry.

This article appeared in KY Forward on April 23, 2015.