Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute (KWRRI)


Definition of a Watershed

Everyone lives and works in a watershed. A watershed is simply a smaller version of a river basin. As such, it is simply the land area that is drained by a stream and its tributaries. As discussed previously, all river basins contain several smaller watersheds.

Watershed Illustration


River Basins

A River Basin is simply the land area that is drained by a river and its tributaries. The state of Kentucky contains 12 major river basins: Big Sandy, Green, Kentucky, Licking, Little Sandy, Lower Cumberland, Mississippi, Salt, Tennessee, Tradewater, Tygarts, and Upper Cumberland below. The Ohio River constitutes most of the northern border of the state and several small watersheds drain directly into its main stem.

Map of the Major Kentucky River Basins


River Basin Management Units

In order to facilitate the management of water supply and water quality issues associated with the rivers of Kentucky, the state of Kentucky was subdivided into 5 basin management units. The basin management units were based on 6-digit hydrologic unit codes (HUCs), within which are nested 8, 11, and 14-digit HUCs (watersheds). HUCs were developed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, and others, to standardize hydrologic unit delineations for geographic description and data storage purposes. A map of the five basin management units is provided below. A listing of the five basin management units and their associated statistics is provided below.

More information on the River Basins in Kentucky can be accessed here.

Basin Management Units for the Kentucky Watershed Framework


Basin Management Unit Number and Description

No. of USGS 8-digit HUCS

Area (

%Total State Area

I. Kentucky River




II. Salt and Licking Rivers




III. Upper and Lower Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi Rivers




IV. Green and Tradewater Rivers




V. Big Sandy, Little Sandy, and Tygarts




Kentucky Basin Management Units


Kentucky Watershed Management Framework

Watershed management became a specific focus of the USEPA during the 1990s when the agency embarked upon a national program to develop and implement a comprehensive watershed protection approach framework across the United States. This initiative built upon the Office of Water's Watershed Protection Approach Framework, first endorsed by senior USEPA managers in 1991 and then updated in 1996. The framework was stimulated by a recognition that a purely regulatory approach was unlikely to achieve the goals of the Clean Water Act, especially in light of the significant contributions of non-point source pollution.

As part of this national effort, the Kentucky Division of Water (KDOW) developed a comprehensive watershed management framework in 1997. The purpose of the framework was to "provide a means for coordinating and integrating the programs, tools, and resources of multiple stakeholder groups to better protect, maintain, and restore the ecological structure and function of watersheds as well as support their sustainable use". The specific goals of the program are summarized as follows:

  • Protect and enhance public health and safety
  • Conserve and enhance watershed ecosystems
  • Support sustainable watershed resource uses that meet water quality standards and conservation goals
  • Reduce or prevent pollutant loadings and other stressors in watersheds
  • Preserve and enhance esthetic and recreational values of watersheds
  • Provide adequate water supply to support sustainable human use and ecological integrity

The original framework involved a collaboration of nearly 30 separate agencies. Representatives from each of these organizations made up an initial statewide steering committee, whose purpose were to review progress, set goals, and provide interagency coordination associated with various joint activities, including water quality monitoring. Basin Coordinators were established for five major river basin management units within the state. Additionally, separate Basin Management Teams were created for each of the major river basins that would provide strategic guidance and program support for implementing the management framework process in each basin.

Additional information on the Kentucky Watershed Management Framework can be accessed from here.

Kentucky River Watershed Management Program

As part of the Kentucky River Watershed Management Framework, the Kentucky River Authority agreed to coordinate and fund watershed management activities in the Kentucky River Basin. Because of limited staff, the KRA contracted with the Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute (KWRRI) to act as its agent in the implementation of the process. In that capacity, the KWRRI worked very closely with the statewide coordinator, the statewide steering committee and the Kentucky Division of Water. Since the program's inception in 1998, the funds from the KRA have been used to support a local basin coordinator for the Kentucky River Basin, to support volunteer water quality sampling across the basin, to implement each of the steps of the overall watershed management framework, and to fund a small grant program in support of water and water quality projects within the basin.

A review of the Kentucky River Watershed Management Program can be accessed from here.

Detailed information on the Kentucky River Basin Plan can be accessed here.

Kentucky River Watershed Watch

Kentucky River Watershed Watch is a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization formed in 1997 through the cooperation of the Sierra Club, the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, and the Division of Water's Water Watch program. Its membership focuses water quality monitoring and improvement efforts within the Kentucky River Basin. The basin extends over much of the central and eastern portions of the state and is home to approximately 710,000 Kentuckians. The watershed includes all or parts of 42 counties and drains over 7,000 square miles, with a tributary network of more than 15,000 miles.

More information on the KRWW can be accessed from here.