Kentucky River Facts


The Kentucky River is the central artery for the state of Kentucky. It flows on a path that stretches from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky through the horse farms of the Bluegrass before finally joining the Ohio River on its course to the sea. It provides drinking water for one sixth of Kentucky’s population and is vital for the survival of countless plants and wildlife.

The Kentucky River, which flows ceaselessly on its eternal journey to find bigger, more turbulent waters, is in dire need of our help. It is ill with the taste of mercury pollution and trash overload. Straight-pipe sewage systems, which drain human feces into the ever-flowing waters, plague the banks of this mighty river. There must be a call to action, and it must come sooner rather than later.


The Kentucky River is sick and mistreated, mysterious and wonderful. Here are some reasons why:
  • The main stem of the Kentucky River is 259mi long and there are 42 counties within its basin.
  • The headwaters of the river are split into three main sections, or forks: the North, South and Middle forks. These forks join near Beattyville to form the main stem of the river that flows north to Carrollton where it joins the Ohio River.
  • The river flows over 250 miles and drops 228 feet in elevation before it reaches the Ohio River.
  • On the main stem of the Kentucky River, there are 14 locks and dams that maintain pool levels for a 250-mile stretch.
  • 710,000 people, or about one sixth of the population of the state, live within the Kentucky River Basin. Most of those people rely on the river for their everyday water supply.
  • All Kentucky waters are under advisory for excessive quantities of mercury.
  • Each year, 630,000 infants will be born with unsafe levels of mercury in their systems according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That mercury comes from freshwater fish contaminated by mercury that their mothers eat while pregnant.
  • The headwaters of the Kentucky River begin in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky where the heaviest concentration of mountaintop removal mining sites are located. This mining directly affects the water supply of large cities, like Lexington and Frankfort, which are downstream from the headwaters.
  • In 2002, the Kentucky River Watershed Watch with the help of PRIDE, reported there were 6,669 straight pipes or failing septic systems within the Kentucky River basin.

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