The Upper Cumberland River Basin covers over 7,300 square miles, 5,180 in Kentucky and 2,130 in Tennessee. All or parts of 20 Kentucky counties lie in the basin. The basin contains nearly 15,100 miles of streams, 10,430 in Kentucky and 4,640 in Tennessee. From the headwaters of Looney Creek in Harlan County, 4,100 feet above sea level, and the Poor Fork in Letcher County, runoff flows down the Upper Cumberland River west to an elevation of 460 feet at the Kentucky-Tennessee line. The river and its tributaries are a blessing and a bane: They provide for recreation, drinking water, and alluvial valleys for development and agriculture, but they also occasionally flood, causing damage to the unprepared.
Residents of Kentucky draw about 38 million gallons of water per day from streams and reservoirs in the basin. On average, about 6,300 million gallons per day (mgd) flow out of the basin, but about once every 10 years, only 55 mgd will flow for a week. This variability in flow affects water users and stream life.
More than 600 miles of assessed streams in the basin do not support designated uses for warm-water aquatic habitat, fish consumption, primary contact recreation, or secondary contact recreation. Not all streams have been assessed. The percentage of assessed streams not supporting uses was: warm-water aquatic habitat (37%); fish consumption (12%); primary contact recreation (65%); secondary contact recreation (50%). Nearly 400 miles of streams have been declared special use waters: either exceptional waters or reference reach waters.
There are six remediation priority watersheds including 370 square miles: primary impacts are nutrients, pathogens, habitat alteration, low dissolve oxygen, turbidity, and pH caused by construction and development, silviculture, mining, and agriculture.
There are 11 large man-made lakes in the basin, ranging from the 40-acre Chenoa Lake to the 50,000-acre Lake Cumberland, one of the largest east of the Mississippi River.
There are nearly 800 square miles of public land in the basin, with scenic vistas, trails, wild rivers, and unique rock formations. The Daniel Boone National Forest covers nearly 500 square miles.
Map and Chart 190
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Carey, Daniel I., "Upper Cumberland River Basin in Kentucky" (2009). Kentucky Geological Survey Map and Chart. 189.