Clearing the water, and mosquitoes, at McConnell Springs

A just-completed construction project at McConnell Springs near downtown Lexington was designed to improve water quality in the park’s unusual system of springs — and downstream.
If things go well, it also could mean the end of the “Mosquito Meter.”
The meter is a sign with a moveable arrow that employees put out on days when the blood-sucking insects are especially bad.
“A healthy aquatic system provides the fish, insects and other things that help take care of the mosquitoes,” said Charles Martin, director of the city’s water quality division, on a visit to the park Monday.
When warm weather comes and new trees and plants have been put in, McConnell Springs Stormwater Quality Wetland Pond Project will look like just another nature exhibit.
But it’s actually a state-of-the-art pollution abatement system, the heart of which is an underground device called a Suntree Nutrient Separating Baffle Box.
The box — essentially a large basket that must occasionally be emptied, is the first line of defense against the runoff from more than 100 acres of industrial and residential development in the Forbes Road area that flows into the east end of the park.
The box will catch the big stuff — plastic bottles, sticks and other trash. (During heavy rains, an above-ground metal gate will trap trash.)
Then the runoff flows through a series of three ponds and into a larger pond/wetland area. By the time water leaves the wetland, it should have lost most of the the lawn chemicals, and highway oil and grease it came in with.
The project is part of an effort by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to help cities deal with what is called non-point pollution. That’s pollution from many places instead of, for example, an pipe that comes out of a factory.
It cost $524,000. About 60 percent of the money came from the EPA, the rest from the city. When the project was announced in June, Mayor Jim Newberry called it “an example of how we’re trying to address our storm water and sanitary sewage that have long polluted our local springs.”
The project has been around since 2004, but serious work on it only began in 2008, Martin said. The work since then has been, for government, lightning fast, he said. He credited help from a number of federal, state and local agencies, as well as citizens’ groups such as the Friends of Wolf Run.
Because it is a demonstration project, plenty of people — from school children to groups of engineers — will visit it and learn how it works.
McConnell Springs already gets a lot of visitors because it is an excellent example of the region’s natural underground plumbing.
Water from as far as two miles away bubbles up in a spring called the Blue Hole, then goes back underground, then comes up in another spring called the Boils. Again it goes under, then comes up in Preston Cave, and eventually flows into Wolf Run Creek.
Members of the Friends of Wolf Run monitored the construction. Ken Cooke, a leader of the group, said the city’s management of the project showed that large construction jobs can be done in winter months without silt and sediment problems.
When heavy downpours come this spring, volunteers from the Friends group will rush out in the rain to help monitor how the project works with a fresh wave of runoff coming in.
“We’re not afraid to get wet,” Cooke said.