Tuning into Kentucky’s Groundwater

To improve groundwater awareness and accountability, Public Works Collaborative, in cooperation with the Kentucky Geological Survey, is allowing the public to hear groundwater data.

To improve groundwater awareness and accountability, Public Works Collaborative, in cooperation with the Kentucky Geological Survey, is allowing the public to hear groundwater data.

Groundwater is a significant resource in Kentucky. It is essential for state agriculture and is the source of sustained base flow in most state streams. Groundwater also serves as a drinking water source for more than a million Kentucky residents. Yet because it is mostly unseen, groundwater is generally not well understood by the public and often goes underappreciated.

How do you generate affection — and therefore a sense of stewardship ― for something unseen? In 2013, a group of artists, designers, and educators at Public Works Collaborative tackled this question. The result is Livestream — an innovative project to bring public awareness, literacy, and accountability to groundwater resources across Kentucky. The first phase, set to debut this fall, is a public art installation in Lexington’s Jacobson Park that will translate groundwater data into an interactive soundscape. “The project is a space in which art, science, and technology come together to cultivate new insights into how we affect our environment, and conversely, how our environment affects us every day,” said Kiersten Nash, founder of Public Works Collaborative.

Bringing Groundwater Awareness into Focus

Though currently situated in New York City, Nash lived in Louisville, Ky. for 14 years. With a background in environmental design, she was able to tap her creative network to assemble a team, which includes Lexington-based cellist Ben Sollee, engineer Sean Montgomery, public artist Bland Hoke, disc jockey Zachary Kaiser, and educator Dan Marwit. In collaboration with the Kentucky Geological Survey (KGS), part of the University of Kentucky, the team is pioneering a new approach for raising awareness of groundwater quality throughout Kentucky.

The focus on groundwater awareness evolved in response to a 2013 request for EcoART grant proposals. LexArts, the arts and cultural council in Lexington, and the Lexington Department of Environmental Quality and Public Works facilitate the grant.

The team chose to focus on groundwater not only because of its importance as a state resource and its lack of public exposure but also because of the state’s unique groundwater geology. More than half of Kentucky is located on karst geology, which is characterized by sinkholes, springs, underground streams, and caves. The state’s karst areas are underlain by soluble bedrocks, primarily limestone, and aquifers are created where groundwater flows rapidly through pipe-like openings and enlarged fractures in the rock. Aquifers in such karst regions are very susceptible to contamination from the land surface.

While KGS collects and publically disseminates groundwater data through an online database and via published scientific reports, “it is difficult for citizens to dig into,” Nash said. So the team looked at new ways to translate the data that would help increase individuals’ understanding of groundwater, its benefits, and how human actions affect the resource.

“One of the ongoing challenges in the broader scientific community is generating public awareness and helping people understand data,” Sollee said. “This project engages a different metric by which the public can experience and interpret data.”

To this end, Livestream will translate data into an interactive soundscape that connects people with a story — in this case the story of groundwater. “A video is like looking out a window,” Sollee said. “But music is a good tool to create a more personalized experience.”

Translating Groundwater into Sound

During phase I, Livestream will manifest as an interactive sculpture that ties groundwater data to a sound library produced first by Sollee and later by other local musicians. Data will be collected from monitoring stations at four actively flowing natural karst springs across Kentucky, each in a different physiographic region of the state.

The sculpture, situated in Jacobson Park, will consist of four clusters of pipes — each representing the different springs where groundwater data is being collected. Each of the five pipes within the cluster will generate sound corresponding to a different groundwater parameter ― pH, conductivity, temperature, water level, and turbidity. “The ebb and flow of these groundwater parameters really dictate what sound is being played,” Nash said. Livestream offers individuals the opportunity to auditorily explore shifts in the amount and quality of groundwater over time. Additionally, the volume of each sound is dependent on individuals’ proximity to the pipes. As visitors walk toward the sculpture, sounds will increase in volume and then will fade as they walk away.

Measuring Groundwater Parameters

In karst systems, storm events, like this one over Kentucky's Bluegrass region, have the potential to quickly alter groundwater flows and quality.

In karst systems, storm events, like this one over Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, have the potential to quickly alter groundwater flows and quality.

The groundwater parameters selected provide a “live pulse on groundwater conditions in the aquifer and how it responds to different natural and human stresses,” said Charles Taylor, head of KGS’ Water Resources Section. “Conductivity, temperature, and turbidity are parameters that can change rapidly in karst, particularly during and after storm events.”

Because these parameters are highly variable, they provide many tone variances. “The parameters we selected are good indicators of groundwater quality and also provide a good dataset for Ben to work with musically,” said Bart Davidson, geologist with KGS.

According to Taylor, flow velocities in karst systems can be on the order of hundreds to thousands of feet per day. A storm event can alter groundwater flows and groundwater quality almost immediately in some cases, depending on the sinkholes or sinking streams that feed surface runoff into the karst system.

The data being collected through Livestream will help KGS get a better idea of how Kentucky’s karst aquifers respond to precipitation and recharge, how they function hydrologically, and how changes in land use or other human activities are affecting groundwater quality.

Livestream will increase KGS’s capacity to collect and monitor groundwater data. Every 15 minutes the four live monitoring stations will sample the groundwater, and data will be transmitted to the Livestream website on a daily basis.

Livestream also will serve as the foundation upon which KGS will construct Kentucky’s first integrated groundwater-monitoring network with observation wells and springs across the state.

A Dialogue with Groundwater

Livestream will allow people to listen and interact with groundwater data from four springs across Kentucky, each in unique geologic settings.

Livestream will allow people to listen and interact with groundwater data from four springs across Kentucky.

Springs bring aquifer flows to the surface, from an unseen resource into what can be an attraction that is experienced and enjoyed. One of the proposed monitoring sites is Cedar Sink at Mammoth Cave National Park. Cedar Sink is a natural feature known as a karst window, a depression similar to a sinkhole where a short section of an underground cave stream is exposed. On one side of Cedar Sink, water emerges from a spring-like opening, flows across the floor of the depression, and disappears at the base of a rocky bluff on the other side.

Each of the four springs selected by KGS to be monitored represent a different physiographic region of Kentucky with a unique geologic setting. Cedar Sink is in the state’s Western Pennyroyal karst region. Other proposed monitoring sites include Cave Branch Spring at Carter Caves State Park in the Eastern Pennyroyal karst region and McConnell Springs, located within a Lexington city park in the state’s Inner Bluegrass karst region. The team is working to finalize the last location, Brown Spring, in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area, which is also part of the Western Kentucky karst.

Back at the installation in Jacobson Park ― which effectively forms a map of Kentucky ― two people walking through Livestream could play sounds derived from monitored spring flows in the Eastern Pennyroyal and the Inner Bluegrass karst regions to compare differences in groundwater quality and abundance.

Human actions within the Livestream installation create physical and emotional reactions to the groundwater data, which, as Nash explains, “underscores our ongoing dialogue with our environment and the multiple modalities which facilitate that conversation.”

From Awareness to Literacy and Accountability

The next phase of the project takes that dialogue with groundwater a step further, beyond awareness to environmental literacy. The Livestream website will serve as an interactive archive of the data and Sollee’s sounds, making the site a dynamic chronicle of groundwater quality that unfolds over time.

Website visitors will be able to interact with the data in a similar but more nuanced way than at the Jacobson Park installation. They will be able to create their own musical mashups of sound and data while exploring groundwater terminology and concepts. This phase of the project is intended to “raise geologic literacy relative to our contemporary political, social, economic, and environmental context,” Nash said.

After a shift in perception and the development of new literacies are achieved in phases I and II, phase III will be dedicated to increasing accountability. The team’s goal is to create and expand a collective dialogue about groundwater ― what it is, why it is important to sustain its quality and quantity, and how individuals’ everyday practices affect groundwater. By partnering with state parks and universities near the four Livestream monitoring stations, the team plans to create an educational outreach program that inspires citizen geologists throughout Kentucky.

In addition to the $20,000 EcoArt grant, Livestream recently received a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts toward the development of Phase I. The team hopes to open the installation in mid-October as part of the University of Kentucky’s Water Week — a weeklong series of events focused on the importance of water that will be held October 19–23. Currently, the team is also developing the interactive online archive. A beta version is scheduled to be released in 2016. The team exhibited an initial prototype of the Phase I installation in July 2014. Check out a video of the prototype below, and visit the Livestream website for more information.

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One Response to “Tuning into Kentucky’s Groundwater”

  1. Bruce Ringrose, PE
    April 8, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    The term “karst geology” is used in the project description, this is an incorrect term. The correct terms are “limestone geology” and “karst features” or “karst terrain”. The surface features such as sinkholes, disappearing streams, and springs are the karst features.

    Otherwise, this is a GREAT public outreach effort. I would like to see someone do something similar in Virginia. KUDOS!!

    Division Engineer
    Loudoun Water
    Ashburn, VA

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