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Headwaters Project

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Headwaters Report (PDF file)      Useful Links


Overview    (return to top)

The purpose of the Letcher County Headwaters Project has been to expand and improve Letcher County's civic capacity by developing tools and promoting understanding that will help citizens and community leaders better monitor how land use decisions--from straight-piping household waste to large-scale mining and timer activities--affect water quality, and subsequently, the county's public health, natural environment, and stable economic future.

The principle mechanism to accomplish these goals is a participatory research project in which students and faculty work closely with a community advisory board to:

  • Review the historical developments that have led to water quality problems in the north fork of the Kentucky River;
  • Develop community-based tools to help citizens address their concerns;
  • Develop an integrated GIS that community members can use to visualize water quality data, identify problem areas, and compare the potential impacts of different development options;
  • Develop additional tools such as easy to read graphs and/or spreadsheets and community surveys that will help community leaders, activists, and others better understand and use the data that is regularly collected by various state agencies and by Watershed Watch volunteers;
  • Identify and publicize residents' concerns about water quality, public health and community sustainability.

The Headwaters Project has evolved as a three-semester teaching and research partnership between EKU's Center for Appalachian Studies and local citizens of Letcher County, which started during the Fall 2001 semester and continued through the Fall 2002 semester. Several students are still working with Dr. Anne Blakeney on thesis projects.

Fall 2001     (return to top)

In the Fall of 2001, a total of 16 students enrolled in the course entitled Social Change in Appalachia, and engaged in participatory research that introduced the research team to Letcher County, developed relationships with county residents, and focused on the first four goals listed above. Dr. Alan Banks team-taught the course with Dr. Alice Jones who also served as the GIs coordinator.

In the first few weeks of class, students gained a sound understanding of some of the crucial debates in Applachian Studies and an appreciation of different theoretical approaches used to explain regional disparities in southeastern Kentucky and Appalachia in general. To help them gain a better understanding of the political, economic, and cultural context of water quality issues in Letcher County, the class took two field trips early in the semester. During these trips, they:

  • Attended open sessions with several representatives from the County Judge Executive's office, James McAuley (a former commissioner of the Letcher County Water District), Mark Hawks (County Judge Executive's Office), and lawyer Jim Tolliver (former head of the Letcher County Water District). Students also met with Randy Hall (Letcher County PVA office) to discuss water quality issues from the point of view of property values and strategies for community development.
  • Attended an afternoon session hosted by representatives from Appalshop, in which community representatives spoke; Appalshop filmmakers also discussed their history and their understanding of important social issues in eastern Kentucky.
  • Viewed a recent Appalshop film about the connection between water quality and community development near the Russell Fork Gorge of the Big Sandy River;
  • Visited a mountaintop removal site near Jenkins with Mark Hawks from the County Judge Executive's Office;
  • Visited several sites to see first-hand some of the water quality problems of the county, including homes with clearly visible straight pipes for their sewer disposal, creeks with the distinctive iron-red color associated with acid mine drainage, and a sediment embankment several meters thick deposited by a recent rain event and indicating severe sediment pollution.
  • Informally interviewed county residents about their perceptions of water quality during the Neon Days fistival and the Whitesburg Mountain Heritage Festival;
  • In addition, several students from our "tech team" visited Letcher County to obtain GPS readings from each of the water quality testing sites used by the Kentucky River Watershed Watch. This data was later used when mapping results with GIs software.

Students also visited nearby Harlan County, where they:

  • Toured the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum and Mine Portal 31 with local resident and retired miner Bob Lunsford;
  • Visited the trout hatchery at the Lynch Tipple, and experimental project, guided by Roy Silver of Southeast Community College, to encourage entrepreneurial and business leadership and to help broaden the county's economic base away from exclusive dependence on coal.

In November 2001, students presented some preliminary results of their work at:

  • A Geography Awareness week feature presentation attended by more than eighty people on EKU's campus.
  • An Appalachian Regional Commission sponsored conference held in Washington, D.C. This ARC conference was organized through the Consortium of Appalachian Centers and Institutes.

Spring 2002     (return to top)

Five students from the Fall Social Change in Appalachia class and two additional students (Mia Fields and Dominic Green) signed up to continue the Letcher County projects during the Spring 2002 semester. As in the previous class, the first few weeks of class were devoted to providing students with a sound understanding of some of the crucial debates in Appalachian Studies and an appreciation of different theoretical approaches used to explain regional disparities in southeastern Kentucky and Appalachia in general. After considerable discussion within our group and with our growing Citizen's Advisory Council, we decided to resolve some of the contradictory information we were finding regarding the connections between clean water and human health. We also decided to establish a greater presence in the community. Starting early in the Spring Semester, students and faculty at the Center:

  • Designed a quantitative survey to be given to health care practitioners in Letcher County (see survey attached in Appendix One);
  • Visited Letcher County to talk with our citizens' advisory council about the best way to proceed with the survey;
  • Notified administrators at local health care facilities about our plan to bring the surveys to Letcher County and asked them to help us deliver and collect them in a timely fashion;
  • Delivered surveys on the morning of Friday, February 8, 2002 and picked them up later in the afternoon. (Business reply envelopes were provided for those who could not finish them in time.)
  • Analyzed the results of the survey using SPSS, a statistical software package for the social sciences;
  • Continued technical work with the GIs mapping and chart-making;
  • Assembled a poster board and PowerPoint presentation to show the results of the Headwaters Project to date, including historical information, water quality data, maps and charts, and health care survey results;
  • Presented the preliminary results of the Headwaters Project at the annual meeting of the Appalachian Studies Association at Unicoi State Park, near Helen, Georgia (March). A community resident and member of the Letcher County Action Team accompanied us on this trip;
  • Presented the preliminary results of the Headwaters Project on EKU's campus at a symposium highlighting student/faculty research projects across campus (April);
  • Held public hearings at the Cowan Community Center and two other locations in Letcher County (May);
  • Discussed several recommendations to promote sustainable economic development along the Kentucky River watershed, and the State as a whole.

Fall 2002     (return to top)

In anticipation of further funding for Phase II of the Headwaters Project, the staff at the Center for Appalachian Studies at Eastern Kentucky was confronted with a decision of whether continue the project or wait until further support was available. After considerable discussion, a decision was made to continue our interdisciplinary teaching and research partnership with local citizens and officials in Letcher County during the Fall 2002 semester.

Fourteen students enrolled in a graduate/undergraduate course entitled Providing Health Services in Appalachia. This course was offered through our College of Health Science's Occupational Therapy program. Of the fourteen students, eight were graduate students, including six from our Master's in Public Administration program, and two from our College of Health Sciences. The undergraduates (all seniors) were from Psychology (1), Sociology (2), English (1), and Pre-Med (1). It was a diverse class with excellent students from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. The majority of students were from eastern Kentucky counties, but two were from other countries (Brazil and Cameroon). Dr. Anne Blakeney (Occupational Therapy with a Ph.D. in Anthropology) and Dr. Alan Banks (Sociology and Director of Center for Appalachian Studies) team-taught the course.

Based upon input from the community advisory committee, the research focus in this class involved a qualitative assessment of citizen's impressions of the state of water quality and its implications for human health and quality of life.1 This "listening project" was designed to complement our more quantitative assessments from last year with the firsthand stories and real life experiences of local residents. It was also designed to generate discussions among EKU students/faculty, local residents and their elected representatives that address realistic and contructive strategies to address water quality issues and promote sustainable economic policies in Letcher County, Kentucky. Put simply, we believe that this "listening project" built upon an ongoing effort to expand citizens' capacity in one community by linking our more quantitative assessments of water quality issues with an investigation of the daily life consequences that water-based contamination has for human health, and sustainable economic development opportunities.

As in the previous classes, students spent their first three weeks of class attending lectures on competing theoretical models for understanding social problems in Appalachia and the many approaches that have been used by governmental and non-governmental agencies to address these problems. They also participated in a special session designed to train them in the area of participatory action research methods, including qualitative data collection and analysis. Starting in September, students and faculty spent three weekends in Letcher County interviewing local residents. At all times, the following guidelines were followed:

  • Students were involved in participatory research. They listened, cooperated and were part of the community partnership,
  • Research addressed one or more of the ARC Strategic plan's goals--education, leadership and civic-capacity development, physical infrastructure, and health (including water resources for personal use and recreational development).

Students became familiar with the structure and work of the Appalachian Regional Commission and its appraoch toward remediation of regional disparities. Students presented the results of their work in several public forums, including:

  • Local presentations in Letcher County during 2002-03 academic year (with additional support from EKU's Center for Appalachian Studies);
  • A student/faculty regional research presentation at a conference sponsored by the Consortium of Appalachian Centers and Institutes (ARC-funded) in Washington, D.C. in November 2002, and again in November 2003.
  • A Shaped by Water Conference in February 2003;
  • An EKU campus-wide forum as part of Geography Awareness week in November 2002;
  • The Appalachian Studies Conference to be held on Eastern Kentucky University's campus in March 2003;
  • Eastern Kentucky University's Earth Days in the Cumberlands, April 2003.

From its inception, the primary goal of the Headwaters Project has been to build an ongoing partnership between EKU's Center for Appalachian Studies and the citizens of Letcher County. This is no simple task given the structure of the academic year at institutions of higher education and the long-term needs of communities. Too often, students come into an area, do their thing and are gone with their grades before a long-lasting relationship can be established. To overcome this structural dilemma, we have tried to visualize this project as a continuous semester by semester relationhip with changing students and, at times, new faculty involvement. If we can maintain this effort, we believe it will lead to a mutually beneficial partnership long into the future. On the one hand, our students received som of the best fieldwork experience available anywhere. They also developed a better understanding of the region, their home, the importance of citizenship and leadership development in Appalachia. On the other, residents of Letcher County gained a sense of confidence in the capatiy building potential that comes with a partnership that ties the human and technical resources of the university with their long term desire for sustainable futures for themselves and their children.

Ultimately, the community advisory committee's investment in the project moved beyond the occasional discussions at the Court House Cafe' to a partnership in writing the project descriptions and syllabi for our courses. And, we believe, it has made a real difference for resident of the county. With EPA funds, they now have a full-time water basin coordinator and additional funds have been secured to expand water lines, improve sewage treatment capacity and develop/implement alternative water disposal technologies--an important step toward eliminating the nearly 1,800 straight pipes in the county. Local resident, advisory board member, and Appalshop filmmaker Herb E. Smith put it this way:

Over the past 12 years, the people of Letcher County have been working to solve problems related to the lack of good water. The legacy of bad or non-existent water, sewage systems and the problems with current coal mining practices have left us facing a large mess that has overwhelmed the previous efforts. EKU's Headwaters Project came at just the right time. The documentation in the project report has provided an important tool for building the case for making systematic change. We are laying new water lines now. Thanks for all your good work. You have shown the way for a university to be a partner with county government and with local citizens.

headwatersproject_letcherco_arc_flex_e_grant_final_report_2002.pdf3.82 MB
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