Rivers are vital to the growth and sustainability of Alabama’s communities.
At the most basic level, rivers provide safe drinking water, a necessity to sustain human life. But we take this necessity for granted: We turn the tap and the water appears. But how does the water get from the source to the faucet? At the Alabama Theatre, in downtown Birmingham, one upstairs faucet, stage-right, is the start of a story that winds and flows south to the Cahaba River and eventually to the source.
The Cahaba River not only contributes a large volume of Alabamians' drinking water. It is also a valuable ecological and recreational asset that the Cahaba Blueway Project seeks to highlight by linking nearly 200 miles of greenways, parks, preserves, and historic sites along the river to create a scenic experience that captures the heritage of the wildlife and rivers. Just like the ecosystem itself, the process of pulling it off involves a complex web of relationships, negotiations and compromises -- all of which threaten its viability but ultimately strengthen the project and the river.
While the Blueway Project aims to give Alabamians easier access to a state treasure, the Village Creek Society, in Birmingham, hopes to restore the dignity of a historic source of water that recently has been overused and poorly managed. Village Creek, a 44-mile watershed, was once the main industrial and municipal water supply for Birmingham. But residents along Village Creek have struggled for decades with issues of flooding and pollution. But through the Society's regular efforts, there's hope to restore Village Creek and preserve the communities along its path.
Restoration and preservation are words you will hear often when talking to experts on Alabama's many native mussel species, which serve as critical water filters, purifying thousands of gallons of water per day. They help maintain clean, safe drinking water for human consumption, and therefore are an essential component to and indicator of the health of our rivers. Many mussel populations are declining because of agricultural runoff, industrial waste, and damming.
Dams are a vital part of the state's infrastructure. They help with flood control and provide electricity, and the lakes formed behind dams have become major recreational and economic centers in the state. But at what price? Dams have taken a toll on the state's ecology, and dam safety has become an important issue, especially since the state is the only one with no dam safety legislation.
As we negotiate what to do about our aging inventory of dams, we continue to wrestle with these issues of stability, sustainability, access and community. We continue to look downstream.
Water in the Birmingham Metro area is controlled by the Birmingham Water Works, which draws from four fresh-water sources and maintains approximately 4,000 miles of pipes splintered across Jefferson County. Depending on the season, up to 100 million gallons of water are processed and moved to 600,000 customers each day.
But how exactly does that water get to those customers? To find out, I decided to find a faucet and then try to trace the water to the faucet from its source.
I chose a faucet in the historic Alabama Theatre, on 3rd Avenue North, in downtown Birmingham. It is an original fixture installed before the opening of the theater in 1927. It is located stage-left in a dressing room three floors up.
It is a plain white ceramic sink, a brass faucet with two porcelain knobs, both with hot water connections. A pipe made from galvanized steel protruding from the bottom of the sink at a 90-degree angle is connected by an “S” joint to another pipe that enters the wall. The paint on the wall is peeling around the pipe.
From there, the pipes travel down the wall, into the basement. There is a constant thudding of a compressor turning on and off, but no leaking water sounds. The pipes are well kept. The pipe, covered in a hard outer-layer painted green, is approximately six inches in diameter. From the wall, the pipe takes a left and follows the wall, turns down, takes a left, back up, to the right, and then one final left turn to the wall that runs perpendicular to the wall the pipe came out of. This is where the water comes into the building from the back, just off of 18th Street North.
However, before any of that water can be delivered to the Alabama Theatre, it first has to be pumped from the source.
The beginning of this journey is at the Lake Purdy Dam on the Little Cahaba River, just above the confluence of the Little Cahaba and the Cahaba River. Operators at the Cahaba Pump Station ten minutes to the west control the dam. At the station, water flows in from the Cahaba through a tunnel approximately 7x12 feet in diameter. This tunnel is covered by a grate to filter out as much organic material as possible. Five vertical and two horizontal pumps, rated at 2,000 horsepower, pull the strained water through a system of pipes. During this process, carbon is added for taste. During the summer months, more chemicals are added to cut down on the microorganisms that grow in the water. Every two hours, a technician pulls water from the river to test its pH and bacteria levels.
After the water is pumped from the river and treated, it is sent to the Shades Mountain Filter Plant, approximately six miles away. A series of pipes ranging from 30 to 36 inches in diameter follows hilly terrain between the pump station and the filter plant. Once the water arrives at the filter plant, it is pumped into a receiving basin where it waits to be filtered. Once the water is pumped from the basin, it goes through four processes before filtration: chemical addition, coagulation, flocculation, and sedimentation.
The chemical addition and coagulation are processes that go hand in hand. Two of the BWWB filter plants, Shades Mountain included, use a chemical called ferric sulfate during this coagulation process. The ferric sulfate bonds with particles, or organic material such as leaves or sticks, in the water and forces them to break down and clump together. These organic materials in the water can come from the trees that surround the receiving basin, or materials that slipped through the pumping process from the Cahaba River. These particles and organic materials will be removed later during the sedimentation process.
The water then goes through flocculation. During flocculation, a series of redwood planks are mechanically lifted and lowered at a slow rate to stir up the silt at the bottom of the water. This allows for the chemical additive to bond better. After flocculation, the water moves into another reservoir where sedimentation begins. The unwanted particles fall to the bottom of the reservoir. The reservoir is then dredged and the particles removed.
Following these processes, the water is filtered through a series of long houses at the front of the plant, visible from Highway 280. The remainder of organic particles are removed while slowly sifting through 18 inches of anthracite, 18 inches of sand, and 18 inches of gravel, all acid-washed to provide the cleanest filtration process possible. Then, sodium hypochlorite, or chlorine, is added to kill any remaining bacteria. The water moves from the filter houses to one of two white storage tanks inside the filter plant where the water remains until it is needed. Once the demand is high enough, water is released from the tanks and travels along a series of underground pipes throughout the coverage area.
There are 26 pressure gradients -- where pressure changes due to a change in depth -- in the BWWB system, and 52 potable water storage tanks throughout the coverage area. These are used for droughts, emergencies, and excess water. Throughout the system, there are boosters that keep the water pressure high over long distances of piping, and pressure reducers, which slow the water in places where the pressure could be destructive if not controlled.
The pipes between the filter plant and the Alabama Theatre are made from either steel from the 1870s, cast iron left from the 1880s, concrete from 1910, or ductile iron starting in 1950. (As the pipes deteriorate over time, they are replaced with ductile iron pipes.) These ductile iron pipes have about a 50-year lifespan, but they are cheap to buy because they are produced by ACIPCO in the very city they are put to use in. These pipes run through hills, up and down mountains, and under the roads throughout the city.
This brings us back to the faucet. After the entire process, water is available at the theater at the turn of the knob. While it seems instantaneous, that water really took a long and processed journey to be available at any moment.
In Central Alabama, one is likely to encounter the Cahaba River in some form or another. Building names, street signs, breweries, and license plates are just a few of the many places and things that reference it. Just as its free-flowing waters wind through the region, the river too has wormed itself into the culture.
While many who live near it do not know about the natural beauty that surrounds the river and its banks, those who do champion it as “a natural gem” and “a diamond in the rough,” praising it for being a home for one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet and the natural connection between the many different communities along its route.
However, the adventure of discovering the Cahaba often involves the adventure of just getting to it, often starting off with parking inconspicuously and evolving into a hike, commonly over private property, to get to the banks .
Limited accessible and legal access to the river hides the sparkling waters and these kinds of experiences from the general public, something that a group of environmental and economic development organizations hope to fix with the Cahaba Blueway,
Why a Blueway?
The mission of the project is to establish a network of canoe put-in and take-out sites that will eventually span from the river’s headwaters in Trussville all the way to its end at Old Cahawba Archaeological Park near Selma, utilizing both newly developed sites along with ones already in existence to create a cohesive experience that will attract residents and visitors alike to the Cahaba.
According to Ryan Parker, Red Rock Trail Coordinator for the Freshwater Land Trust, a blueway is a series of canoe put-ins and take-outs. The name of the project derives itself from the concept of a greenway, the land-based concept of making a natural trail through urban and rural settings that often connects communities. What is different is that this idea, applied to the Cahaba River, will eventually span all the way from its headwaters outside of Birmingham in Trussville down to Old Cahawba Archaeological Park, the location due south of Selma where the Cahaba joins with its bigger sibling, the Alabama River.
Parker and the Freshwater Land Trust belong to a coalition of organizations that spearhead the Blueway, including The Nature Conservancy of Alabama, The Cahaba River Society and Alabama Innovation Engine, a joint economic growth think-tank formed by The University of Alabama and Auburn University. After individually hearing from communities and members about the lack of access, they got together and began to talk about how to combine their efforts, and the idea of the Blueway was born.
For Chris Oberholster, state director of The Nature Conservancy of Alabama, the idea of getting his organization -- one that specializes in raising public funds for buying land for preservation and upgrading sites -- is a logical one. The Nature Conservancy has worked for several decades at acquiring lands along and surrounding the Cahaba River watershed with the purpose of creating a sanctuary for wildlife so that it can grow and survive, and getting communities involved in this process through the Blueway makes sense.
“Our mission is basically to protect the lands and waters on which all life depends in the world,” Oberholster said, explaining how the importance of building visibility and constituency for the river.
Beth Stewart is the executive director of the Cahaba River Society, an environmentally-based organization that brings people in contact with the river through educational sessions and hands-on field trips. Stewart echoed Oberholster’s thoughts on how the concept of the Blueway and the project behind it fit in with her organization’s goals of fostering education and stewardship of the river. ”It’s an amazing resource, and a small group of people know where it is and how to get on the river, but we want everyone to get on the river and have fun. The more people that enjoy the river, the more support we have for its protection,” she said.
Over at the Freshwater Land Trust’s offices in a redeveloped part of downtown Birmingham, Wendy Jackson, the organization’s executive director, stands in front of large and detailed maps of the river and its watersheds.
“We own the land,” she said with a laugh and a smile when asked about how they became involved in the coalition. Originally created out of a consent decree in Alabama’s Jefferson County, The Freshwater Land Trust’s mission is to acquire land for vegetative buffers of rivers and streams from adjacent lands. Through their work, the organization also heard about the lack of access from many people.
“It’s such a phenomenal river with rich biodiversity, and everyone has heard about and knows how special the Cahaba is,” Jackson said. “But when you usually start asking how many people have been on the Cahaba or have interacted in any way with it, it’s few and far between.”
The philosophy behind the Blueway is simple: create the economic engine for a community and get the two acquainted, and the community can grow to fill the needs created by the presence of the Blueway to better themselves and the places they live. Having a canoe trail that attracts visitors who will spend money on food, lodging, outfitters and other forms of recreation is something that impacts both the river and those who live around it.
But the project’s goals don’t end at the water’s edge. “The Blueway isn’t just the river, it’s the entire watershed that surrounds it,” said Matt Leavell, project director at the Alabama Innovation Engine. “It’s something that will give the infrastructure to entrepreneurs to create economic growth,” he added, stating that the project has the ability to benefit many people within the cities and counties that it passes through by creating a basis for economic development to grow off of.
The Way Things Flow
The Cahaba runs for nearly 200 miles through five different counties in the heart of the state. The headwaters start in Jefferson County, winding through the Birmingham area past of the wealthiest communities in the state and under the bridges of major roads and interstates as it takes a southwesterly course towards neighboring Shelby and Bibb counties.
There the river begins to make its way out of civilization, trading
its urban boundaries for the natural, less-populated stretches. The currents continue to wind through the vast forests of Central Alabama, but turn into rapids near Centreville and the geographic fall line between the rocky highlands and the coastal plain, a demarcation that divides the state in a geographic, and according to some, an economic manner as well. From there, the fast-flowing and turbulent current of the Upper Cahaba gives way to the wider, calmer waters of the Lower Cahaba in Perry and Dallas counties.
According to Jim Hodo, the differences between the upper and the lower rivers are staggering. The retired former president of military clothing maker American Apparel, Inc., and former Nature Conservancy board member has plenty of experience with both ends of the river and how the two share some similarities, but are significantly different.
The biggest difference for the Blueway, Hodo said, is that the headwaters and the upper region are in the largest population center in the state, which has more resources due to the amount of municipalities in the region but has development along a significant portion of its banks.
The upper Cahaba has also gotten more attention than its lower sibling that flows through more rural areas and counties that are not as fortunate in regards to funding and resources, something Hodo says slows down the rate and amount of site construction on the water.
And for a state with a multi-billion dollar outdoor tourism industry, creating more outdoor economic outlets could make a significant difference in residents’ way of life. According to Jackson, the economic benefits of projects like the Blueway are undeniable; property values of homes in neighborhoods with green spaces in them rise significantly, in some places as high as 29%, and younger generations are attracted by the walkability and natural elements.
Aside from benefiting those who live around the Blueway, the project hopes to establish it as a tourism destination for Alabama. Both Jackson and Stewart both said that they have heard from people from outside the state expressing interest in seeing the Cahaba. “If we can do this and do it right, this becomes a real destination for Central Alabama.”
Taking the First Steps
Coordinating a project of this scale and successfully following through with it is a process that takes a significant amount of time, money, and cooperation on both the short and long-term scales. But those who are already involved with the project remain committed to seeing it come to fruition.
The first site along the Cahaba Blueway will be the Moon River Campground and Canoe Launch, a historic site at the intersection of the river and Highway 78 between the towns of Leeds and Irondale. At different points through the years, the old site has been the home to a dance hall, fish camp and gas station. Now, it is merely a wooded area waiting to be developed. The Freshwater Land Trust and Alabama Power, the first major corporate partner in the project, have coordinated to oversee this project as the beginning node along the Blueway.
Although Moon River was initially expected to be completed last year, a dispute with the Alabama Department of Transportation about crossing the highway has delayed things. However, Jackson remains hopeful that it will be resolved soon. “Once people can actually see what a Blueway canoe launch looks like, I think that will spur additional investments in creating some of the other launches. So that’s our focus,” she said.
Downstream from Moon River, a handful of developed sites and many more improvised sites provide already exist. Sites near the headwaters like the Grants Mill canoe launch in Irondale and the Old Overton boat ramp in Mountain Brook have been around for years, with silt lines and graffiti reveal years of use and weather. While these sites are currently open to the public, they too will be updated and brought into the Blueway on the same timeline as Moon River.
Further on south, sites like the Canoe the Cahaba and Living River Retreat canoe put-ins offer people an experience on the river in a setting that is further out from the hustle and bustle of the Birmingham area. As the river continues past the fall line on its journey to the Alabama River, visitors can find legal access points along bridges such as ones near the towns of Heiberger and Selma, albeit in much greater distances between sites.
The Power of People
Along with the legitimate sites, though, are the improvised and unsanctioned spots. An important part of creating a Blueway is the process of creating sites that are not just legally accessible by land, but also by water. While the river, the riverbed and the immediate banks along the water are considered to be public domain, many parcels of land along the river are privately owned. And because of the lack of access, trespassing becomes a problem. Beaten paths to secluded shoals and cobbled-together rope swings dot the river between the established sites, each spot catering to a different crowd and set of activities.
This is a problem Oberholster recognizes as a significant issue to correct with the Blueway. “You can’t talk about how wonderful the Cahaba is as a recreational and outdoor resource conceptually if you’re inviting people to go and essentially trespass,” he said. “It’s a big dilemma, as you can’t promote it as a recreation and a quality of life and tourism asset if you’re really funneling people to do things that they’re not supposed to, no matter how well-intentioned they are.”
After acquiring the land and ensuring that it can be accessed in an easy and legal manner, the next task is to get the authorities and municipalities on board with the project. It is important to court authorities on the local, state and federal level, something that the coalition has already accomplished, with a $250,000 technical assistance grant from the National Park Service.
Beth Stewart realizes the importance of this aspect of the process and why building the support of local government and communities is critical to helping the pieces fall into place.
“You have to move down the river as well as with the major developers who have projects along the way, so when there’s opportunities to incorporate a Blueway access, that happens,” she said, “Whether it’s a major development or a city looking at its existing property and seeing what is on the Cahaba.”
Jim Felder, executive director of the Alabama Scenic River Trail, has plenty of experience getting the government and municipalities on board with river trails; his organization oversees over 5,000 miles of accessible waterway across the state, and he understands the impact of ecotourism on Alabama's economy.
But he also understands the role of the local and state governments. According to Felder, counties control 95% of access to rivers, and are much easier to deal with than multiple communities. “When you deal with the counties, you’re dealing with development. It’s easier to deal with one county that fifteen communities are in instead of the other way around,” he said. “When you can meet with them once or twice a month and get them to pass legislation, it works.”
Another important issue in getting the Blueway to work is having the blessing of the local authorities. “Don’t do anything that doesn’t get the buy-in of law enforcement,” Felder said. “Invite them to your meetings and let them know what you’re doing, because if they’re not gonna patrol it, don’t waste your time.”
On the higher levels of government, there has to be support from politicians in order for long-term grants and funding, something Jim Hodo says can only happen with nudging from constituents. “The way you make it happen is to get more public support and interest in this, and the more likely elected officials are to see this as advantageous and get behind it,” he said. “Ultimately, I believe you’ll have to have a sponsor, whether a senator or a governor, that believes it to be very important and will ensure that those things happen.”
Dollars and Sense
The preeminent issue for the Blueway, according to many sources, is securing funding and resources for the short and long terms. One of the ways to gain funding, according to Wendy Jackson, is through educating and showing the public about the physical and financial benefits to having a Blueway in their community.
“When you build it, they do come. And they come and they spend money in your community. And this is especially important for the lower reaches of the Cahaba that flow through the Black Belt where you have some economically challenged communities,” she said. “Developing an entire Blueway could draw tourism dollars to those regions along with Birmingham and Shelby County as well.”
So far, the funding for the Blueway has come from a variety of places. With the early stages of development taking place along the Upper Cahaba and in the Birmingham area, much of the money has come from private charities such as the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, the Hugh Kaul Foundation, and The Robert R. Meyer Foundation. But most notably, there has been money and support from Alabama Power, the first major corporate sponsor on the Blueway project, through its Alabama Power Foundation.
For Michael Sznajderman, Corporate Information Manager for Alabama Power, becoming involved with the Blueway was a logical choice. “It was a good fit for us with the Freshwater Land Trust and the multiple other partners and benefits that would be long lasting for not just people, but economic development and quality of life in Alabama,” he said. “We’re a large utility. We utilize a lot of natural resources but we are also very focused on protecting and conserving those resources.”
Sznajderman, who sits on the board for the Freshwater Land Trust, said that the longstanding relationship between the two organizations was what helped forge the relationship that brought Alabama Power to become a partner.
“The Cahaba Blueway and the Moon River launch fit the bill on several levels for us. One, it would be a significant part of the Blueway by being the first tangible, physical amenity on the Blueway,” he said. “It is also going to be in Jefferson County, which is a population center and right in the heart of our customer base, because we also look at these projects as providing a benefit for our customers.”
Reading the Signs
In order for the Cahaba Blueway to realize its potential, new sites must be built and proper signage must be installed in order to create equal standards of experience across the entire trail. In order to increase interaction with the Cahaba but yet not harm it at the same time, the sites must be low-impact, durable, long lasting and safe.
Alabama Innovation Engine and the other main partners of the Blueway have published a best-practices design guide and signage manual to help communities create the kinds of spots that fall in line with the ideals of the project.
Simple blue signs with white lettering will tell users about where they are, what they need to know about the site itself, what to experience with paddling and other forms of information. “We have a consistent, excellent design,” said Stewart. “We want the users to have a consistent experience they can count on that’s of quality when they go to visit the river,” she added.
The Long Term
However, much as with any sort of long-term project, there are some obstacles that The Cahaba Blueway coalition will have to address.
Sznajderman explained how there are always issues of government collaboration, community involvement and funding of resources and manpower. He also talked about the physical issues of building the locations, something that only skims the myriad of unforeseen circumstances in projects like the Blueway.. “Sometimes you get in there and do the design work and you don’t know if there are some challenges from the geology or access of the site,” he said.
Funding is the most obvious of the concerns, as it takes money to create and maintain sites. “There’s multiple sites over the length of the Cahaba River that will ultimately have to be developed,” he added. “So it’s definitely a challenge to draw the dollars in over the long term.”
Private landholders, according to Felder, are going to need the most convincing. “Landowners will show up once they hear the word ‘blueway’, and they may want to complain or they may not, but you show them what you’ve done in other places and what river trails have done in general for communities in Alabama,” he said, stating that if landowners have positive experiences and interactions with canoe trails, they are more likely to be receptive to them.
Positive interactions and experiences with the river are also necessary for building up public support, a major part of project’s long-term strategy. Jim Hodo sees this as especially important with ensuring the project’s survival along the Lower Cahaba.
“I think it’s important to make communities aware. It’s well known in Birmingham, but once you get farther out, it doesn’t have a very high profile, and probably less so the further you come down the river,” he said.
Wendy Jackson shared the same sentiment, stating that building a sense of support for the Blueway will be more of a task in the rural areas.
However, Beth Stewart has learned through the years that gaining support is as simple as getting out there. “We’ve learned that when people spend time on the Cahaba River, they become converts,” she said. “They feel touched by the river, and they want to be good stewards of it, and so the more people that get on the Cahaba River, the more people that want to protect it.”
And the sites will need as much community support as they can get when it comes to site cleaning and upkeep. Silt is a perpetual issue with any river, and it can be problematic on the Cahaba at times. In order for sites and canoe launches to continue to be clean enough for use, there will need to be stewardship from the residents and visitors who use them.
The Paddlers, the Public and the Outfitter
Many who visit the river are only casually acquainted with it, but there are people who have been paddling the river for years and know the ins and outs of the Cahaba. These people, often just referred to as paddlers, have a better sense of respect for the river and watershed.
For David Butler, owner of Helena, Alabama-based outfitter Canoe the Cahaba, these are the people who are already on the river and taking care of it. “The paddlers in general are more aware of their surroundings, and they see rivers as paths and trails as opposed to the average citizen,” he said.
Butler started out as an employee of a former outfitting company on the Cahaba, and his experience led him to starting out on his own in 2005. Although he operates mostly in the upper Cahaba region, the better predictability and reliability of operating in the lower region means it is familiar territory as well.
Littering and trash are another major issue for both the river and the Blueway coalition. When high volumes of people utilize public sites, trash and waste are created. Although many are responsible when it comes to cleaning up their mess, those that don’t can turn parks and the river itself into a trashy mess.
“Nobody wants to paddle a trashy river,” said Jim Felder, lamenting on the conditions sometimes seen along the river. He added that it would be up to the more dedicated “paddlers” setting standards for the more recreational “public” to follow.
On the lower Cahaba, according to Linda Derry, garbage is a much bigger issue. The head archaeologist at Old Cahawba and avid paddler says that trash only flows downstream.
“Unfortunately, a lot of what’s washing up down here is coming from the Birmingham area,” she said. “So we have to make sure that the people up north care for it, because we’re the ones who are paying for how they treat it.”
Wendy Jackson thinks that having those who care about it the most chastising those who do not can be a powerful tool towards changing behaviors. “If we get the good paddlers out there, it becomes a cultural and peer pressure thing where people who litter get criticized by others.”
Felder went on to add that the paddlers, along with the creation of well-used and publically accessible sites, would also help to rid the riverbanks of illicit activities.
“If you put up a Blueway sign, improve the parking lot and put up a fence so the cars can’t crash into the water, you’ve broadcast a signal to those people to move on. You won’t get rid of them, but they’ll go somewhere else,” he said.
Beth Stewart also understands that bad behavior in the past on the parts of those experiencing the river and those selling experiences has left a bad taste in the mouths of private landowners, but she feels that there is room for change.
“The Cahaba, in many ways, has such a large constituency of those who feel that the river is their backyard, and where they grew up and love to be and play, and so there’s some resistance to greater public use of the river by those who’ve been enjoying it for a long time. And so the idea that a river is public access can be tough, particularly for those in rural areas, to get hold of,” she said, “And that partly depends on making sure that the users of the river are respecting the river and private property rights along it.”
Something else that many Blueway partners want to see is the growth of the outfitter industry along the Cahaba. But not just anyone can be an outfitter, according to Jim Felder. “An outfitter isn’t Bass Pro or Wal-Mart, places where you can go buy a boat. An outfitter is someone who offers an experience to someone who shows up, has guide services and a shuttle, because river trails are very unique,” he said.
Linda Derry shares the same sentiments, explaining that the dedicated paddlers are already out there and equipped. “It’s for the people that want to try it out without buying the high-dollar kayak and the paraphernalia,” she said.
But having the equipment is only half of the battle, something that Linda Derry encountered firsthand with trying to get a business established on the river.
“We were trying to mount an outfitter, and we bought canoes because we didn’t see anyone else doing it,” she said. “But I have all of this equipment and no funds for people to run it.”
Like many other outfitters along rivers, there is the problem of putting in at Point A and ending up at Point B, something that Felder sees as a hinderance. “There are a lot of things going for them, but one of the things seen as a negative is that they don’t ever end up where they started out,” he said. “So, you’ve got to add that level of service in there.”
Another issue that is unique to the Cahaba is the water level. While there are advantages to having a free-flowing river, predictable water levels is not one of them. Although it does not ruin the ability to navigate the river, Beth Stewart says it definitely changes things.
“The lower Cahaba is more year-round. Below the fall line, even when the river’s pretty low in the summer and it may be hot, but you can still find a place to float. In the upper Cahaba from the fall line up, there are definitely times of the year especially in the summer and the early fall, when you just don’t have enough water to comfortably float the river.”
“So for outfitters to be successful, it’d be great for them to have access to the whole river and have good launch points on the whole river so they can have a year-round business,” Stewart said.
David Butler emphasizes the importance of the water levels, stating that the issue of consistently getting on the river is what affects him most, not attracting customers. And especially in the summertime, when business would be the most ideal.
“There’s not a lot of business on the Upper Cahaba at that time because nobody really enjoys hiking their canoe all day, and that’s not something that the Blueway can impact in any meaningful way,” he said. “They can’t create water.”
With completed sites and trails along the Cahaba, Wendy Jackson thinks that this will allow for more easily sustained business on the river. “When you have the dedicated canoe launches, it makes it easier for the outfitters to come and utilize those and get more people on the river,” she said.
Moving into the future, The Blueway must operate on both a short-term plan and a long-term plan. While the general theme is the same among the partners, each of the organizations have different goals for the near future and further out.
At the Nature Conservancy, Chris Oberholster and his team’s top two short term priorities are getting the Moon River and Grants Mill sites online. “Those are sort of running in parallel. Depending on what kinds of things unfold, we’ll just put whichever one in place, then we’ll be looking to prioritize what’s next when those two are in place,” he said.
Down the street at the Freshwater Land Trust, the mood is the same: get Moon River done. “We want to get Moon River Completed. We’re having a little issue getting the driveway across the ALDOT right of way, so we’re pushing through that,” Jackson said, adding that her organization was ready to get it done as soon as possible.
Over at the Cahaba River Society, Beth Stewart remains confident about the progression of the project. Their goals for the immediate future are to continue organizing efforts towards river cleanup and preservation, using their knowledge and experience to fulfill that role. “With all of these sites, it will take ongoing volunteer support, and we’d like to organize that.”
Another thing she’d like to accomplish is gaining the support and stewardship of the communities along the river. “It would be great to have ‘friends of’ types of groups adopt a particular location and help to build trails, help with upkeep and help with vegetation,” she said. “Make it as rich and beautiful of a site as possible over time, and that could become a way that we galvanize community support for the river.”
In regards to the expanded timeline of the Blueway, all of the partners accept that there needs to be a long-term strategy as to keeping the project moving in a forward direction, and it will have to include a variety of approaches.
Chris Oberholster accepts this truth and integrates it into his plan. “There’s no ‘one-recipe’ approach to this, so there are lessons to be learned and tried, but it’s going to take multiple different tools, mechanisms and strategies to make this work,” he said.
The Cahaba River Society is interested in gathering more partners and enough support to dedicate someone full-time to the project. Getting and keeping people on board, according to Stewart, is paramount.
“I think that we need to raise enough funds and have enough partners so that we have a full-time, paid coordinator for the Blueway,” Stewart said. “Once we have that, and that’s sustainable, then that person will be able to keep all the partners on point so that the full range of resources available from all those partners will be brought into play, and I think that’s what it’ll take.”
Jim Hodo echoes the organizations’ sentiments in regards to the Blueway’s extended survival. For him, having organized efforts between the upper and lower regions along with someone to lobby for those resources are two of the most important parts of a long-term plan.
“There are resources available, but somebody has to continually lobby for those resources to be applied to the Cahaba with elected officials, nonprofits and also the general public,” he said. “Also, there has to be some general coordination to where all of this logically makes sense. If you’re going to market the Cahaba River, you really have to have coordination among the counties.”
Every partner involved with the Cahaba Blueway looks at it in an optimistic manner, many of whom see it as a way to move the state forward in terms of community, tourism, and economic prosperity. For Beth Stewart, the future of the project is one of hope and positivity.
“We haven’t had that investment in a water trail that moves through the communities and links trails and cultural history as well as nature. And it could be quite a modest investment in these launches between signage, launches and good trails, and it would have huge dividends in terms of the potential that it would create for the people of Central Alabama, so I think that bringing money to the table and having a lot of the foundations and partners supporting this come together and build out in as short of a time period that we can.”
It will be interesting to see this project begin to take physical presence, and the challenge remains to see how the process behind that will influence the way it develops. Like any other large scale and long term project, there will be hurdles along the way to completion, but those involved in the coalition are determined to take the diamond in the rough and polish it into something everyone can view as a treasure.
In my real life, my outside-of-grad-school life, I write about style. I can churn out prose about this season’s most fashionable silhouettes or wax poetic about who wore what and where to any awards show. I write about style because what we wear and how we wear it communicates something about ourselves before we ever open our mouths. Plus, it’s fun.
But when I arrived at graduate school, I was given a group assignment to report on Alabama’s rivers. Rivers. And not a feature about the chicest duck boots, what to wear on a swamp tour, the pristine Gulf Coast beaches or even seafood pulled from its waters.
Did I mention I’m not the outdoors type?
I was stumped. I struggled to find anything compelling about Alabama’s waterways. I toyed with the idea of tracing Murder Creek in my hometown of Brewton, of examining coastal communities, of studying the construction of the infamous Dolly Parton Bridge or the Bankhead Tunnel in Mobile. But these ideas felt half-hearted, and though they may have been interesting to investigate, they didn’t resonate with me. And I had to come up with something. Fast.
I complained about this to Jason Eppenger, who gave me both a reality check and a reason to explore Village Creek further.
“You wanted to become a journalist because you wanted to write about things that matter, things that don’t get the attention other issues get,” he said. “You’ve tossed all these ideas out, but you live right here in Birmingham and didn’t even mention Village Creek.”
He gave me a rough history of the Creek’s importance to the industrialization of Birmingham, quickly naming several companies that sprang up and made use of the water to power their mining operations. Then he talked about the flooding that damaged the homes of, and eventually displaced, African-American residents who lived in the neighborhoods along its route. Over and over again, until parcels of land were bought up and people were moved out. I’d lived in Birmingham for over a decade and had never heard of Village Creek.
Many months later I found myself crouched in the drizzling rain by a bridge over the section of Village Creek separating Ensley and Pratt City. I balanced carefully in my rain boots, so as not to slip down the bank while trying to capture the piles of wet garbage and other debris and wondering how so much trash had accumulated so quickly. Then I heard the crunch of gravel behind me.
I turned, startled, to see a policeman had pulled up in his cruiser. He let his window down and asked just what I was doing. A valid question, to be sure.
Standing up slowly, I explained my project and my dismay at the creek’s condition.
"You want to know the history of Village Creek?" he asked. "It stinks!"
He laughed as he sped away into the gray afternoon.
For the past seven months, I’ve immersed myself in the 44-mile stretch of water that is Village Creek. I’ve observed the annual fall clean-up, witnessing all the bags of trash collected in an effort to keep the western Ensley-Pratt section clean. I’ve talked to people who live and work along the creek’s banks, and those are concerned with preserving it. I’ve been to the Ensley-Pratt, East Birmingham, East Lake, Inglenook and Roebuck Springs neighborhoods, parks and abandoned industrial grounds in an effort to better understand what happened there -- and what’s happening still.
The Reckoning: Village Creek's history
To best understand Village Creek, you have to look beyond its current state. Its place in Birmingham’s history is actually a lot more complicated than that.
Click hereto see where Village Creek begins in Roebuck Springs
Village Creek provided Birmingham’s industrial and municipal water supply. According to Dr. Mable Anderson, founder of the Village Creek Human and Environmental Justice Society, African-American families began settling in Village Creek company towns and neighborhoods in the 1920s as they took jobs in the coal mines and foundries that sprang up, unaware that it was a flood zone. She attests to the vibrant community life she experienced growing up there. Dr. Anderson also notes the resilience of the families who continued to rebuild Village Creek each time the flood waters came, rebuilding that was necessary because most families lacked the economic resources to re-establish their homes elsewhere.
Pamela Sterne King, historic preservationist and history professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, references a geological survey commissioned by the University of Alabama which detailed the rich natural resources in Jefferson County which were suitable for industrial development. Village Creek would be key to this endeavor, she explains.
“Turning minerals into products required a lot of water. And so,that that water was going to be essential to being able to exploit the natural resources under the ground. It had to have significant fresh water. Without some source of freshwater - Birmingham not being on a river - it had to have Village Creek and so many other creeks,” she explains.
Much of the labor used by early industrialists were comprised of recently emancipated slaves.
“They were doing what Americans do," says King. "They were looking for opportunity because in the state at that time your best shot at surviving whether you’re black or white was to be a sharecropper. When these furnaces were being built, the industrialists needed a lot of cheap labor and African- Americans were one source.”
King elaborates on the labor used in these industries, the makeup of the neighboring areas as well and explains the hierarchy created by the available housing in company towns.
“Shotgun houses were the best cheap housing because you could maximize the development on a single lot. But there were also bungalows in these company towns and that’s what you aspiring to. If you’re living in a shotgun house then you want to aspire to the bungalows. And they were designed to create incentives for their workers to aspire for better, to stay on the job to look for the better job. Because they designed it so that you could see the better houses on the street next door.”
The Progressive Era did bring about some positive changes, King says. This movement was revolutionary in its plan to provide leisure and entertainment spaces to the lower classes in order to create happier, healthier workers, and brought the Olmstead Brothers to Birmingham.
“In 1925, the city of Birmingham commissioned the Olmstead Brothers to do a park plan for the city of Birmingham, who laid out a plan for a marvelous park system. The firm was stunned by the beauty of Birmingham and thought that a park system would really be able to take advantage of it. They were trying to soften the industrial grit and dirt and thought crime would go down, dysfunctional families would go down, and happiness would go up. And a lot of that they were gearing toward the working classes, who couldn’t afford to build parks of their own.”
However, this plan was never implemented, which King says is not unusual.
“Corporations ran the show and they paid for what they wanted to pay for. And so they had no interest in helping to pay for or being a part of a citywide plan. That wasn’t interesting to them,” she explains.
As Birmingham moved into the mid-century and beyond the physical makeup of the area changes, with serious economic implications for those who remain, according to King.
“By the 1950s a lot of the European immigrants had already moved up the ladder to different neighborhoods that aren’t on the creek. The population that’s mainly left are African-Americans who don’t have access to better jobs and still are subject to segregated neighborhoods. And so they had nowhere that they can go. And then in addition to that, interstates come in. So in the 1960s and 1970s, whatever’s left of poor neighborhoods, the interstate’s pretty much gonna destroy,” she says.
Those who have access to jobs and better housing and can leave, do. But those who are left face yet more problems.
“African-Americans were really stuck in the poorest neighborhoods and a lot of those are going to be along Village Creek. And so [another] thing that happens is that US Steel in particular winds down in Birmingham. So by the 1960s, U. S. Steel found it could make better money in South America and it’s having a hard time competing with plastics which has come in.”
Then the federal government cracks down on environmental problems caused by industrialists, costing the companies even more money.
“They’re just going to pick up and leave, basically,” King says.
But what of those who lived in the area?
As a young mother with two small children, Lillie Thomas recalls moving from a West End duplex into the area with her daughters and mother around 1981. The family moved into a two bedroom brick house at 1509 Escambia St., which had a dead end, she says. They thought it was a good choice.
“During that time, the neighborhood was fine,” Thomas says. “We could walk to the school and to the park, they had a neighborhood store, and we weren’t that far from the interstate.”
The Thomas family didn’t know the area flooded periodically.
“After we got in and got settled and started getting to know the neighbors they said it flooded but it had been a while. We actually had two floods,” Thomas recalls. “The first time [between 1982 and 1983], the water made it to the first step. We had three steps and a wide porch, and the water made it to the first step. A couple of years later it flooded again and it made it right to the door and the bottom of the floor. The first time [with the water not coming in the house], we were pretty much okay. So just going off what the neighbors were saying I thought it would be years before it flooded badly,” she says.
The second flood altered Thomas’ plans to move to North Carolina for Job Corps training.
“Had my bags packed and everything and was getting ready to go catch the Greyhound. The neighbors called about 5 o’clock that morning and told us to wake up because it had flooded outside,” Thomas says. “We jumped up and looked outside. My mother didn’t want me to go to North Carolina anyway. She was praying that I couldn’t go and I thought, ‘She prayed up a flood!’” Thomas says, laughing.
“It had rained all night and the water was there in the house when we woke up. You know how you might get up in the night to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom? We slept all night. If I had gotten out of bed in the middle of the night and seen it - oh my God, I would have panicked,” she says.
Thomas had never experienced a flood before and her immediate concern was her two young children.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen or what to do,” Thomas says. “That water was really muddy and red-looking. If something happened, how long would it take for help to get to us?”
The family congregated at the dining room table while Thomas’ mother prayed.
“I’m just sitting there looking out the window with the girls on my lap and my feet up in a chair. I wasn’t even thinking about North Carolina anymore,” Thomas says. “I was afraid snakes would come in. That was my big concern.”
Thomas recalls trying to remain calm while also trying to figure out how to keep her children and mother safe.
“Actually seeing it was unbelievable,” she says. “I didn’t want to go overboard because my mom was hysterical and I didn’t want to make it worse. I had to try to look and stay calm so she wouldn’t take out walking like that was going to help. But it was shocking.”
While she was concerned about her family, a young woman who lived across the street was also panicking.
“Her mom was blind and her dad was bed-ridden. But she had older brothers and she knew that there was some kind of way they could get in there to get them,” Thomas says. “I think one worked for the city and one drove an 18-wheeler, so she knew they could get in there. But she was still worried about her mom and her dad.”
Kesha Thomas, Lillie’s eldest daughter, was about four or five years old during the second flood. She remembers the porch of the Escambia Street home being “very high off the ground.” Her memory of the porch is sharp: she chipped a front tooth when she collided with the porch’s brick foundation while learning to roller skate. The foundation was as tall as she.
“As an adult I’ve often wondered if the porch was built so high in order to withstand flood waters,” she says.
The flooding lasted a couple of hours. Lillie Thomas says the Red Cross came to the neighborhood with shoes and clothes for those affected by the storm afterward, but doesn’t remember then-mayor Richard Arrington being a presence in the area.
"The thought was along the lines of ‘Well, you know, it’s just something that happens. That’s not surprising,’” Thomas says.
Water entered the three rooms at the front of the house: the dining room, living room and the bedroom Thomas shared with her daughters. She estimates they spent between $600 to $800 in replacing rugs and other items the flood waters destroyed. (The Consumer Price Index calculator available at BLS.gov estimates that amount would be in the range of $1,299.82 to $1,733.09 when adjusted for inflation in 2014.) The landlord arranged for their home’s hardwood floors to be sanitized. In 1986, the family moved to 38th St., which Thomas says is not considered part of Village Creek and posed no threat of flooding.
“I never, ever want to experience that again,” she says.
Thomas never made it to North Carolina, and hasn’t returned to her former home on Escambia Street, either.
“To do what?” she asks. "If it flooded now we wouldn’t know it. What I know now is that the houses out there and the area we stayed in are no longer there. The airport bought that. They couldn’t tear Alberta Shields School down because it’s a historical landmark. They’ve built a park around it,” Thomas says.
For Lillie Thomas, sharing this story has been an emotional release.
Sylvia Weatherspoon, a lifelong resident of East Birmingham, has many memories of Village Creek as well and was eager to share them. She vividly recalls being a member of the first class at Alberta Shields School in the 1940s, and later a teacher there. The school is now a conference center located on what is W. C. Patton Park. Mrs. Weatherspoon, a retired educator, remembers when a bustling community including a neighborhood, school and commercial district existed there instead of the park's grounds.
Decades after Thomas and Weatherspoon relocated, restoration efforts continue along Village Creek.
Collaboration is key
The Village Creek Society, a human and environmental justice group led by recently appointed Executive Director Yohance Owens, is troubling the waters of the 44-mile Village Creek watershed that runs through the heart of Birmingham. The society’s aim — to clean up the polluted creek and create greenways, to recognize and celebrate its historic influence and economic impact on Birmingham, to acknowledge the sacrifices and legacy of those who lived on its banks and protect it for future generations — is an ongoing mission.
On September 19, the Village Creek Society partnered with personnel from Vulcan Materials Company and members of Birmingham Fire and Rescue to clean up the creek. Joe Howell, Area Manager of Environmental Services at Vulcan Materials Co., notes the significance of their participation. His company maintains a machine shop in what used to serve as the quarry for mining slag and where a company town to house African-Americans was developed. The site is located near the midsection of the creek, whose upper section begins near Roebuck and goes toward Bayview Lake at the lower end.
David Langner, Senior Area Operations Manager at Vulcan Materials Co., notes the history of the area.
“When we mined the slag here, there were several hundred people here,” Langner says. Now there are about 30 employees at the machine shop. The property has a storehouse; trailers, drills, old pumps and crushing and screening equipment are kept on location.
“We’ve been in this facility for decades. This area and Fairfield, Alabama is where Vulcan Materials Co. started as Birmingham Slag Co. in 1914,” Howell adds. “We were looking for an opportunity to give back. When they approached us nine years ago we were more than happy to get involved. Every little bit helps.”
John Meehan, an unpaid field director for the Village Creek Society, agrees. He has a long record of community service in the Ensley area; his involvement with the Ensley Neighborhood Association led him to work with the Village Creek Society on behalf of the creek. Ensley was also one of the company towns established for early mining operations.
“I’ve been involved in political and community events over forty years, since I was 14,” Meehan says. "We have to continue these cleanups. We want to keep the flooding out. It used to flood so badly here. There’s a lot that has to be done,” he says.
Birmingham Fire and Rescue provides much of the manpower to complete the in-creek clean-up. Lisa Tharpe, a 911 Dispatch supervisor, serves on the Society’s Advisory Board as well and assists with logistics for the clean-ups. She estimates that out of Birmingham Fire and Rescue’s 32 stations, 20 to 25 firemen participate in the clean-up. For many of them, including Battalion Chief Melvin Brown and Fire Chief Charles Gordon, participation is both a personal and professional privilege.
Apparatus specialist Walt Peacock recalls participating when he was assigned to Station 15 in West End.
“We primarily focused on about a 100 yard section. A lot of trash had washed into that area so it took us a while to get that particular part cleaned up. We had gloves and we had protective equipment to keep us from getting dirty. But for the most part it was just a matter of being careful to not splash around and being gentle when we were pulling tires and things like that out,” he says.
Peacock considers this more than a civic duty. For Peacock, it’s important to show an active concern for the community.
“Being a member of the Fire Department, I feel like it’s very important to have a little more skin in the game in the community that we serve. The creek is a good opportunity simply because a lot of the members of the community show up and want to come and help clean up their neighborhoods. I don’t live in the city I’m assigned to work, so it’s an opportunity for me to shake hands and to meet and greet and converse with the people that I serve.”
Battalion Chief Roosevelt Coar, who lived in Sherman Heights, recalls that many of his schoolmates were affected by the flooding in Ensley.
“I did have a lot of people that I went to high school with and elementary school that were affected by the flooding,” he says. “Every time there was a pretty healthy dose of rain the creek would normally flood over into the communities so there were a lot of people that I knew that were affected by it.”
Coar notes that the city of Birmingham recognizes the importance of the Village Creek Society’s efforts.
“The participation from the City of Birmingham as far as sending representatives out to all of our meetings has been pretty, pretty good,” he says. “They rarely if ever are not there. Most of the things we ask for they, they give us, in terms of support. So, I think the City understands how important the Creek is to the community. Because if the creek should happen to have flooding issues, it impacts the citizens of the city.”
The three groups gathered for the cleanup just outside the entrance of Vulcan Material Co.’s property, stepping into rubber boots and pants and carrying large plastic bags for garbage collection. A narrow bridge extends over the creek; fish and turtles swim in the water below.
“I wouldn’t eat the fish,” an onlooker observes.
Anthony Smith, an employee of Jefferson County Environmental Services, is also onsite for the cleanup. The county employees are responsible for loading and removing the garbage collected from the creek. Smith has participated in the cleanup for five years and has observed an improvement in its conditions.
“This year we might get 3000 to 4000 pounds of garbage,” he says. “The City of Birmingham picks it up. We used to come out here ever year. I haven’t been in the water for two years,” he says.
Chief Coar notes, “We’ve pulled everything from shopping carts to tires to anything. It just depends. There’s a laundry list of things that are in that creek that we go in every, twice a year and try to maintain it. There’s a lot of stuff that’s in there.”
By the clean-up’s conclusion, three loads of debris (including one wheelbarrow) are collected into a small boat. The Jefferson County crew hoists it from the water using a crane and dumps it into a truck. Students from nearby Jackson-Olin High School were due on Saturday to participate in an out-of-creek cleanup in the neighborhood.
Smith’s colleague Jonathan Short emphasizes that the cleanup activities are “a collaborative effort between Jefferson County Environmental Services, the Birmingham Fire Department and Vulcan Materials Company.” Short has been assisting with the cleanup for several years and also sees an improvement in the area.
“This is pristine compared to what it used to be. They’re kind of struggling to find trash,” he notes of the cleanup crew in the creek.
“This is the cleanest it’s been in a really, really long time,” says Smith. This used to be a three-day cleanup.”
Nonprofits work toward common goal
Village Creek has been part of the thread of Dr. Anderson’s life. Her parents set up their home near the Creek and her father worked for Tennessee Coal and Iron for over forty years. As a little girl living in Moro Park and attending Council School near Village Creek, Dr. Mable Anderson experienced anemia she attributes to pollution in the water. Floodwaters washed into her family’s garden.
“My mother cooked liver for me and she made the egg whipped in milk to give to me,” she says. “When you’re exposed to pollution, it can have a negative effect on your body.”
She attended school in Tuskegee, and while she was away, her parents’ neighborhood flooded.
Anderson recalls her parents had to put their cow on the front porch and the paper came to take a picture.
“Mama and Daddy were so proud. They sent that paper to us in Tuskegee and we were so ashamed! But they didn’t want the cow to drown,” she says with a laugh. “We had a good life, but again the flooding and polluted water” were problems, she says.
Anderson later attended Michigan State and Penn State universities and became a psychologist, but eventually Village Creek brought her back as an adult.
Improving Village Creek through clean-ups such as the one held in September has been her life’s work. When Anderson returned to Birmingham in the early 1980s to care for her parents, she was astounded at the continued flooding, the lack of an official response and a coordinated effort to change things. She first tried moving her parents out. When they refused, she then quickly mobilized an effort to help residents in her parents’ neighborhood restore the area.
She enlisted the expertise of Richard Woodruff, a hydro-engineer with Alabama Power who helped design plans to eradicate flooding. For 50 years, he’d been watching the flooding continue unabated. He worked pro-bono to control the flood.
“It is being controlled, but it has to continue being controlled,” Anderson says.
Science classes schools including Jackson-Olin High School came to study the water quality, and public works joined them as well. She and Woodruff eventually approached city leaders to bring them on board. Woodruff and Anderson also went to UAB’s Environmental Sciences to arrange a survey for free. Anderson says this work was not easy and they encountered many roadblocks, but this did not deter them.
“We didn’t give up, because our people were going to hurt. 300,000 people would still be suffering,” she says. They moved forward with efforts to control the flooding. They were the first creek to work with Renew Our Rivers, who helped them organize annual clean-ups to because of their connection with the Waterkeepers Alliance.
Anderson and Woodruff were invited to an international waterkeepers meeting in upstate New York, where Woodruff approached Robert Kennedy Jr. for insight into controlling flooding in the area.
“[Do] just like we did in Upstate New York. Sue the hell out of them,” Kennedy told him, according to Anderson.
"A lawsuit would have taken too long," she says. Immediate action was vital.
Village Creek has since become a learning laboratory for schools including Jackson-Olin, Minor and Holy Family Cristo Rey. The clean-ups continue in spring and fall, and Anderson is positive that they will be effective even as the society has transitioned to a new director and president.
When asked about the existence of “floodgates” that could have caused the flooding, Anderson recalled taking a Ms. Cook to view Bayview Lake where the floodgates were reportedly located.
“They would not open those gates and that’s why it flooded on us!” Anderson remembers Cook saying.
“I’m not sure that was the case, Anderson says. “It could’ve been. I just don’t know.”
When asked about the naming of W. C. Patton Park, Anderson did not remember a Eugene Thomas, but recalled Patton as a “community leader,” a “nice man” who “got things done, not afraid of anything.”
A portion of Avenue I in Ensley from 17th Street to 12th Street was renamed in her honor. The dedication was held despite three inches of snow falling the day before.
“I feel very humbled that that happened,” she says. “We’ve gotten pretty far.”
But there is still work to do.
As a member of the Society’s advisory board, Chief Coar emphasizes that this work is ongoing.
“One of the things we’re trying to do with the Creek Society is obviously make sure that we continue the programs Dr. Anderson had in place, in terms of making sure that we clean it up annually or twice a year. We’re also working on a path for Village Creek. There has since been a bridge placed over Village Creek, a walking path if you will, that’s coming along pretty good. We just want to make sure some of the projects Dr. Anderson had in place continue to move forward.”
That work now rests with the Society’s new Executive Director, Yohance Owens, who plans to expand upon Dr. Anderson’s work and implement new ideas as well. He has begun by increasing the group’s social media presence, reaching out to local schools and partnering with other like-minded local organizations. These efforts, he hopes, will draw positive attention to the Creek and build consensus among the diverse groups of citizens, government entities, nonprofits concerned with the area's viability.
“The transition has been a teachable moment. But mainly our focus is doing what’s best for the Village Creek Society because clean water is a necessity,” Owens says.
He credits the work both Anderson and Woodruff accomplished. His job is to continue to push those ideas and implement new ones, including launching water education and preservation programs in Birmingham’s inner city schools and at the Norwood Resource Center.
“I want those kids to look at professions in environmental science,” he says.
“We always want a resolution to happen overnight, but you have to be patient when you’re talking about something that has to go through red tape,” Owens says.
Owens has brought in Chris Davis as development associate, as a means of generating more funding for the Society. Davis is optimistic about the plans to restore Village Creek along the lines of other areas in Birmingham.
Ryan Parker, Red Rock Trail coordinator at the Freshwater Land Trust, shares the hope that Village Creek can be restored for generations to come. The Freshwater Land Trust is a 501c3 nonprofit which has conserved over 10,000 acres of land for public use. Its mission is to act as a responsible steward over Birmingham natural resources.
Parker, King and Tharpe each note the importance of preserving Village Creek’s story for future generations.
While preservationism is often associated with “rich people’s things,” according to King, the movement became interested “in the places of working and poor people” after the 1960s.
“The preservation movement is all about keeping structures associated with different people or movements in order to learn from it and keep it in place,” she says. “But in this case it’s in the floodplain and should not have been there in the first place. And so you’re gonna lose the only neighborhoods there are associated with some of these groups. But you can’t document that history of people living on the creek if the structures aren’t there, so you lose that.”
Since human health and safety trump preserving structures, projects such as this take on even more significance according to King.
“The only way you can tell that history is through oral histories or documentaries and photographs, but you’re not going to be able to tell what it was like to live on the creek through those structures because they’re gone.”
There are other considerations for Tharpe.
“It’s important because we have to understand it takes everybody to help get a community together. It just doesn’t take outsiders. Any my biggest passion is, you have to be able to help sustain some neighborhoods that people would normally overlook and get pushed to the wayside,” she says.
“People are more reactive than proactive. They don’t really don’t see it’s a problem until [it’s] your house [that] floods. Until something happens to you, then you realize that what people have been doing and laying path all along to help you out, then it becomes important. I don’t think that people are educated enough. The resources are there, they’re just not educated enough to understand what’s going on.”
“Village Creek not only affects our generation now, it’s gonna affect generations to come. Anybody that lives in the radius that Village Creek flows through, it’s going to affect us, so we might as well participate now instead of later. [People] need to not look at it what it is now, they need to see the vision of what it is going to become.”
We can literally drive past or over something every day and never know its impact on our lives. I lived in Birmingham for years before I came into direct knowledge of Village Creek, and once I did I was compelled to learn more. From a day spent observing an out-of-creek clean-up in the Ensley-Pratt area to helping former residents reclaim their memories, to walking where homes once graced East Birmingham, this project reaffirms the importance of sharing stories so they are not washed away by natural disasters, or neglect or time.
Village Creek’s significance to Birmingham’s history cannot be understated. The stories that rise from its banks crisscross commercial, municipal, environmental and personal themes. Rather than being separate interests or concerns, these overlap. By creating a space where these diverse communities and individual stories can formally meet and intersect in a permanent manner, it is hoped that these entities can find even more opportunities to work together toward a common goal: preserving Village Creek’s natural resources and history for future generations.
If you’ve lived, studied and/or worked near Village Creek your story is important, too. To share it, please contact Alexis Barton.
It was a beautiful, sunny day in Springville, Alabama. Sitting on his back porch admiring the view, Doug Morrison watched the breeze rustle the tree leaves and and ripple in the creek water just a few yards away.
Suddenly, Morrison noticed a paddle boat gliding down the creek, twisting and turning to avoid the shallows. Though he’d lived in Springville for years, he’d never thought of paddling in Big Canoe Creek. Waving the paddler down, Morrison realized it was one of his friends.
After a handshake and a few minutes of conversation, Morrison found himself inside the boat, testing the water. The water was clear and beautiful, with fish darting beneath the surface. He could see mussels and other shells dotting the murky bottom. Shaded by trees, with nothing but the chatter of birds and trickling of water, Morrison thought paddling was the perfect hobby to develop.
The journey back home wasn’t so pleasant. Though the beauty of Big Canoe Creek still left him in awe, he noticed trash strewn along the banks. Plastic grocery bags, old beer bottles and Styrofoam cups littered the view. Morrison paddled to the edges and began picking the debris up, placing the soggy litter into the paddle boat.
After buying himself a canoe, he began exploring the creek. He appreciated the beauty beyond his own backyard and seemed to learn more and more with every trip. There were snakes that slithered out of the Goodwin Mill Dam, finding refuge in the stone. The most beautiful flowers bloomed in the spring along the bank, and teenagers frequently made hangouts there, parking their cars near bridges and trekking down to the creek.
As Morrison noticed the beauty, he also couldn’t help but see the trash. He encountered many other paddlers on his travels, all picking up trash that speckled the banks, as if it was second nature. “It was like they saw this trash taking away the beauty of the creek, and they just automatically removed the ugly,” he said.
No longer could he remain passive. That’s when he knew it was time to start an organization to preserve and protect Big Canoe Creek.
So, in 2008, Morrison with the help of his friends, neighbors and other community members from the town formed The Friends of Big Canoe Creek. “As we grew we started learning more and more about our watershed," Morrison said.
This is how Morrison, an enthusiastic man with a beard and a ball cap, explains the beginning of his organization to me. It is a windy February night when I meet him, as well as other members, to understand the work they do.
"We discovered the Canoe Creek Clubshell, Pleurobema athearni, had just been recently discovered in 2006,” he said.
The discovery of this mussel meant big things for The Friends of Big Canoe Creek. The species is only known to exist in Big Canoe Creek, giving the organization a vital purpose: to learn more about the importance of mussels and how to protect them.
Morrison and his grassroots group learned that Big Canoe Creek is notably one of very few tributaries of the Coosa River that has not lost a majority of its mussel species. They also discovered that mussels are one of the most imperiled groups of animals in North America.
One of these species, the Southern Clubshell, stuck out more than rest. In the past, the original organization had fought against bridge production that would harm a small waterway where the Southern Clubshell could be found. In fact, 18 miles of the main stem of Big Canoe Creek had been designated as a “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act written in 2004. This critical habitat was home to the Southern Clubshell and many other mussels.
The Friends of Big Canoe Creek needed to learn more about the importance of these mussels.
Where do you find the Southern Clubshell?
Once found from Michigan to Alabama, Illinois to West Virginia, now the Southern Clubshell is only found in Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama. It is endemic to the Mobile River Basin. With its rusty brown shell, Pleurobema decisum, lives in flowing water in large creeks and rivers, usually in substrates made up of gravel and sand. It was once known from every major river system in the Mobile River Basin in the Alabama, Tombigbee, Black Warrior, Cahaba, Tallapoosa, and Coosa Rivers, with the exception of the Mobile Delta. Recently, this species has vanished from the Cahaba River drainage, the Tombigbee and Black Warrior main channels and an array of other tributaries.
The Mobile Basin, home to the Southern Clubshell, is the largest basin to empty into the Gulf of Mexico east of the Mississippi River. According to the book, Freshwater Mussels of Alabama, the drainage area is approximately 113,000 m2. Most of Alabama and some areas in Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee are included as well in the drainage. The Coosa, Tallapoosa, Cahaba and Alabama rivers make up the eastern sub-basin, with the Black Warrior and Tombigbee rivers making the western. Formed at the junction of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, the Mobile River flows into the Mobile Bay, which is interconnected with the Mobile Delta.
Most of the water where the Southern Clubshell lives consists of mixtures of sand and mud, with some organic debris. Through the upstream reaches of some of the tributaries, gravel can also be found. Freshwater Mussels reports that typically the Mobile River is not exposed to dredging and flows without impoundment. In fact, much of the Mobile Delta is dotted with nature preserves.
Why do we need the Southern Clubshell
It’s an extremely cold day in February when I treck to Stewart McGregor’s office to meet him. McGregor is an aquatic biologist for the Geological Survey of Alabama. He has been working with mussels since 1989, surveying the different species and helping to understand their importance and peril.
His office is located in Walter Bryan Jones hall on The University of Alabama’s campus. As a student, I park my car and make the long walk across the Quad, each gust of wind whipping me in the face. When I arrive at the office, McGregor meets me. He is enthusiastic and his passion for his job is apparent from the beginning of our conversation. This is clearly a man who has spent his entire life working to protect and preserve the beauty of Alabama’s biodiversity. The plus for me is that he really, really likes mussels.
With the help of McGregor and Paul Johnson, director of the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center, I quickly begin to understand why mussels are so important to maintain in our waterways.
For many, many years, freshwater mussels, like the Southern Clubshell, have played an important role for humans, animals and the water in which they live. Historically, Native Americans appear to have used mussels for food and tools.
Until only recently, most cultured pearls purchased in the United States were dependent on freshwater mussels for a “nucleus.” Mussels were collected live, had their tissue removed, and then the shell was cut and ground into beads. Johnson claimed that these beads were then inserted into a pearl oyster in Japan or China for one to two years and later harvested.
Also, mussels provide food and habitat for other animals. Specifically, mussels are a source of food for other species including muskrats, turtles and otters. These are all animals that are in turn consumed by humans. Mussels are spawning substrates for some fishes. Though mussels are a source of food for some, the role the species plays as a filter feeder is arguably its most important.
Mussels serve as filter feeders, removing debris from the water and cleaning the rivers. In fact, mussels like the Southern Clubshell, filter thousands of gallons of water every day. The mussels also serve as a nutrient sink for some compounds, specifically nitrates and nitrites, which reduce algal growth within the water.
“Historically, the density of mussels was huge. Hundreds of millions, billions, were in our large rivers. These rivers were also much cleaner, and water visibility usually exceeded 10 feet or more,” Johnson said.
Johnson even made the argument that it’s possible to cut down on the cost of water treatment if mussels were returned to their near historic densities.
Imagine travelling to the Black Warrior near campus and actually being able to see into the bottom? It could be possible if we revive the mussel population.
Surprising facts about mussels
While learning about the mussel, it also became an intriguing subject. Though mussels provide cleaner water and serve as food for other species inhabiting the water, their life cycle also depends upon the help of other animals, as well.
According to the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society, mussel larvae are released and must live as parasites upon the tissue of a host fish to complete metamorphosis into adult mussels. Specifically, the Southern Clubshell lives upon the Blacktail Shiner. In scientific terms, it sounds incredibly boring and unremarkable, but to hear McGregor talk it is apparent that this life cycle is very specific, and indeed, remarkable.
The fact that mussels inject their larvae, babies, or as biologists call them, glochidia, into fish is what McGregor calls “nature’s way of preserving them.”
Mussels actually have a foot. No, it is not a foot that resembles one of a human, and it certainly isn’t necessarily what I would first think of as a “foot,” but it most definitely exists. It’s a small muscle that comes out from the bottom of the mussel.
McGregor reports that mussels can move surprisingly fast on a sandy bottom, but they are not going to be able to get incredibly far, which is why host fish play such an important role in mussel reproduction.
Mussels are sexually dimorphic. So, like humans, birds, and other species, the female and male mussels are different. The male mussel will release his sperm out into the water, and the female mussels hope to catch it. “The females have to successfully take in through its cycling the sperm and move it over the eggs and then successfully fertilize the eggs,” McGregor said.
Then the female has the job of injecting the glochidia into a host fish. While some mussels can inject into any type of fish, others are very host specific, meaning a very limited number of fish species can successfully host the glochidia from the mussels.
Some mussels simply send their glochidia out into the water. Others use tricks to lure fish in.
All mussels attempt to connect the glochidia to the gills, or sometimes, the fins of the fish. No compelling evidence has been found to suggest the fish are caused any harm. After injection, the fish continue to swim and live normally.
“When they inject the fish with their host, the fish may travel 100 miles, so the glochidia can fall off,” McGregor reported.
Thus, the fish have helped to spread the mussels throughout a body of water.
What many Alabamians do not realize is what can be found in their own backyards. Not only is Alabama home to a vast array of mussels, but these species interact with so much more living in the water.
The continental U.S. has the most diverse amount of freshwater mussels in the world. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims the Southeast contains 94 percent of the country’s mussel fauna. Fauna is considered the animal life of a particular region. The Southeast is also home to more than 95 percent of 70 federally protected mussels.
Specifically, Alabama has the most biodiversity in the continental United States, with 18 river systems and more species of freshwater fish, mussels, turtles, snails and crayfish than any other state. The state is home to 48 federally protected mussels, making it home to more of these mussels than any other state in the nation. Over the past century, this group of organisms has experienced the most rapid decline than any other wide ranging group. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 25 percent of mussels in the United States are federally endangered or threatened, and 50 percent require conservation concern. Also, they consider 6 percent of mussels to be extinct.
The Decline of the Mussel
The decline of mussels began more than a century ago, due to pollution and the impoundment of many rivers.
Of course, there isn’t one single source responsible for the demise of the Southern Clubshell or other freshwater mussels. If there were, the problem might have been fixed long ago. Sadly, many factors have contributed.
Over the past century, no watershed in Alabama has gone undisturbed due to both aquatic and terrestrial habitat modification. Impoundment, channelization, construction altering runoff, channel destabilization, contamination and sedimentation continue to wreak havoc on the mussel population.
For the Southern Clubshell, habitat modification creates a major threat. Man-made structures, like dams and alterations to channels, restrict free-flowing water for the mussel. Because the species is dependent on a narrow range of flowing water conditions, modification to the habitat creates small, isolated groups of the species. For example, now that The Friends of Big Canoe Creek eradicated the Goodwin Mill Dam, the freshwater mussels are expected to increase in number.
Also, because the mussel filters water, pollution has created the next greatest risk of endangerment. The Institute for Southern Studies released a report that showed more than 12.2 million pounds of toxic chemicals are released into the waterways of Alabama. Many of the problems facing the Southern Clubshell have also affected other species it interacts with, like fish. Several native fish populations have been reduced, making hosts for the mussels unavailable. If the water is unclean, animals can’t properly function in the water.
Since mussels provide various benefits to rivers and other cohabitants, many researchers and organizations since the 1960s have sought to provide protection for freshwater mussels. In 1973, the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted to conserve endangered plants and animals.
The authors of Freshwater Mussels in Alabama called it “the most proactive legislation enacted.” This legislation placed the responsibility of listing and recovering freshwater mussels to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Under the ESA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed 11 freshwater mussels in 1993, one being the Southern Clubshell, as endangered. Thus, a specific recovery plan was created for the Mobile River Basin with a list of 10 objectives. For the Southern Clubshell in the Mobile River Basin, dams, channelization, dredging, and pollution are the greatest threats. These objectives included improving the quality of the river, creating options for a free-flowing river, encouraging community-based watershed planning and implementing educational programs for the public.
Historically, the Mobile River Basin saw a decline in the species by 70 to 80 percent in the last 25 to 50 years. However, according to researchers Bogan and Cordeior in 2012, after implementation of this program, recent reports have been closer to 60 percent.
Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alongside the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Geological Survey of Alabama have created S.H.U., or strategic habitat units. These are selected watersheds and segments of rivers in Alabama that will have focused conservation activities in order to manage, protect, restore and recover fish, mussel, snail and crayfish populations. The organizations involved hope that it will help to facilitate and coordinate watershed managment and restoration efforts, while also helping to address the problems of habitat and water quality issues.
“Those streams are the most important in the state for restoration and recovery of specific species because they have the last remaining vestiges of rare animal populations,” McGregor said.
Organizations Protecting the Mussel
Now that I’ve learned more about mussels and why they are important, I understand why The Friends of Big Canoe Creek have worked so hard to protect it. Sitting inside a small room at the Springville Presbyterian Church, the small group of seven are gathered at a wooden table, the pale yellow walls decorated with plates depicting Mary and baby Jesus, as they discuss upcoming projects and new developments.
Morrison’s face beams as he discusses the initiatives, fundraisers and projects the group has started. From having creek cleanups to showing films about rivers in Alabama, he and his organization have been working diligently to preserve the water they all love dearly.
Perhaps these projects are paying off because the water integrity of Big Canoe creek is superb. Though eight of the 13 listed mussel species resides in it, somehow they manage to persist in this small creek. If this organization can protect and preserve the water, can others? Have the people of Big Canoe Creek discovered what it takes to preserve mussels, and thus, preserve the biodiversity of Alabama, protecting water quality and beauty for generation of humans to come?
Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center
Throughout this mussel journey I have constantly been told to visit Dr. Johnson at the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center. In my conversations with him about the important role mussels have in Alabama’s rivers, it has become apparent that his organization works to protect the biodiversity of Alabama, as well. Though Johnson works professionally to preserve mussels and other species, his work resembles that of Morrison’s. Both want to see the rivers and animals of Alabama thrive.
As part of my last bit of reporting, I decide to make the journey to Marion, Alabama, where I meet with Johnson, as well as Dr. Michael Buntin.
The small brick building is located on breathtakingly beautiful land. It’s a bright, sunny day in March, and I am ecstatic to finally see this place in action. As I bustle in the door, I’m ushered into a small room near the back where several biologists are gathered around a large white bucket. Inside, I see hundreds of little brown fish swimming around. One of the biologists is holding what looks to me like a very large medicine dropper. Apparently, he is injecting the fish was mussel glochidia.
The entire day is a learning lesson. Buntin, with his jovial personality, is excited and informative. We spend hours at the Center where I see not only the fish injection, but watch as the fish are then transported back into small tanks. There are mussels in round glass canisters. Mussels are growing in large buckets outside in hopes that they can be taken back to other sites in Alabama rivers to grow and prosper.
Not only does Buntin allow me to see the Center, but he also lets me tag along while he conducts field work. We travel in his work truck along dusty, windy roads. The sun is shining perfectly. Finally, we arrive at a site along the Cahaba River. Nervously, I climb into a pair of brown waders, preparing to get in the water and watch him work.
It was so beautiful that it seemed almost unreal. The water was a clear blue with a rippling and fast current. The water was slightly high, but I could still see the brown and gray rocks that darted beneath the surface. Buntin dove again and again in his jet black wetsuit, looking for different mussel species in the water. At the end of his catch, he placed them on a fallen tree, displaying the different species he’d found.
Clearly, the Center and its employees do all they can to protect Alabama’s biodiversity.
The Center is the largest state non-game recovery program of its kind in the entire United States. Its mission is to “promote the conservation and restoration of rare freshwater species in Alabama water and in turn, restore cleaner water in Alabama’s waterways.” The Center has partnerships with not only state and federal agencies, but it also works with non-profit organizations, watershed recovery groups and universities.
The site of the Center was impressive. Located in Marion, Ala., the complex is made up of four buildings on 36 acres of land. Right down the road is the Marion State Fish Hatchery, Perry Lakes Park and The Nature Conservancy’s Barton’s Beach Preserve. Indeed, it is a very biodiverse conscious town.
After a long day at the Center, I am exhausted, sunburned and amazed. Throughout my journey at the Center I have realized just how important all of these creatures are that live in Alabama’s rivers. From watching snails crawl around in huge white tubs, to seeing Buntin’s excited expression over small snail larvae on the bottom of a rock in the Cahaba, I realize how important this all is to so many people.
Whether it’s someone from AABC diving for mussels or simply a man paddling down a small creek in his backyard, mussels mean something. The biodiversity means something, and we as humans play an imperative role.
“The biggest thing as a person you can do is take ownership of the water,” Buntin said.
Indeed, that’s only the beginning, and perhaps, the most important part.
We wouldn’t throw trash in our own yards, so why do we throw trash in rivers, creeks and streams?
Mussels interact with other animals in the water that we ingest. Plus, our water quality is somewhat connected to the amount of mussels living in the bodies of water we use. Though we may think nothing of them now, there are bigger implications for the future.
If we all hope to one day teach our children how to fish or show them our favorite swimming holes in the future, it all begins with today and what we have now. By remembering to treat the water respectively, we can continue to restore what has already been lost in the rivers of Alabama. By not polluting the water, aiming to take away impoundment of the rivers, and educating ourselves about the importance of these creatures, we can improve the quality of life for so many species. If we can work to restore mussels to their natural densities, it could save affect countless other species’ lives, and even our own. All we have to do is start today by putting one tiny foot forward.
March 17th, 1990 started as an average night for Mitch Reid. He was 14 at the time, sitting down to dinner with his family in Geneva, Ala. Everything was normal. It had been raining hard for three days, but no one in his family, his mom, dad or two younger sisters, was worried about it. Heavy rain isn’t unusual during spring in Southeast Alabama.
His father, George, was the superintendent of the school system in nearby Slocomb, where Reid was a student at Slocomb High. The elder Reid got a phone call during dinner that brought him away from the table. Reid didn’t know what the call was about, but when he hung up the phone his father said, “We’ve got to go downtown and work on the levee.”
The rain over the last three days turned out to be a little unusual, after all. The Wiregrass had been drenched with between eight and 16 inches between the 15th and 17th of March, and the many of the rivers in the area were beginning to flood, reaching record or near-record crests in many cases.
His mother stayed home with his two sisters, who were 11 and 9 at the time. As he and his father headed out of the house in the dark, Reid wasn’t sure what working on the levee meant.
They drove the 11 miles from their home in Bellwood to downtown Geneva in the rain. When they got to the spot on the levee where they would work through the night, there were others already there. Flood lights lit the area as silhouettes scurried in the rainy dark. A line had formed from where bags were being filled with sand to where they were being stacked at the top of the levee on the outskirts of the town. In one direction, the Geneva County courthouse loomed in the night. In the other, the levee held back the rising Choctawhatchee River.
He helped pass the sandbags along the line so they could be stacked against a flood that threatened to top the levee surrounding downtown Geneva. Clustered beneath the splash of light from the nearest flood lamp were around 20 people, moving the bags like worker ants. But there were more groups just like this one up and down the levee, all trying to save the town from the rising waters.
Reid’s father got the call because he was superintendent, and the two of them hurried to Geneva because they’d heard the levees might fail.
But they weren’t the only ones.
Hundreds flocked to the small town to try and save it. “We had no idea how many people,” Reid said. “It may have been the entire town… It was phenomenal how many people came out that night. And I’m assuming they were doing that in every town along the river.”
The river rose dangerously close to the top of the levee, but it never reached the top. Geneva didn’t flood that night. Reid and others felt like they had saved the town -- that their efforts, those of rescue heroes, as Reid said, had been enough to save Geneva.
What they didn’t know in the moment was what was happening in other parts of southeast Alabama. Just over 36 miles to the northwest, the Pea River rose to a crest of over 40 feet. The water topped the levees around Elba, bursting them and flooding the town.
Reid later recalled seeing the Coffee County courthouse in photographs in the newspaper that showed water rising up to the second floor. The building looked just like the Geneva County courthouse Reid saw that night in the rain. In the pictures, johnboats floated in around the courthouse as workers tried to save public documents -- birth certificates, tax papers, marriage licenses.
The flood was the result of a combination of factors. It came during a heavy rain, or “gullywasher,” as Reid described it. But there was also a dam break in Fort Rucker, north of both Elba and Geneva, on Lake Tholocco.
“The pressure was put on the dams by the rain,” Reid said. “But that is the purpose, if you will, of dams. They are not supposed to break when you get a bunch of rain.”
The dam that failed was not large, but the release of 600 acres of water from Lake Tholocco was enough to put a heavy burden on the system. Some of that pressure was eased by the levee breaking in Elba, resulting in the destruction of that town. According to the National Weather Service, 130 of the town’s 140 businesses were either destroyed or badly damaged. More than 1,000 homes were flooded and more than 1,500 people were evacuated. There was no loss of life, but floods like this – and larger ones – can be extremely hazardous not only to property, but to the people living in their paths.
The Big Picture
Some dams play important roles in flood control, making certain areas which had previously been in flood plains more easily habitable.
Others provide reservoirs – giant, manmade lakes that people love for their recreational value, but which also provide drinking water for millions of people. Still others make river traffic possible for barges and other boats for trade and navigation. And the dams of Alabama Power and the Tennessee Valley Authority provide electricity to many people in the state.
But with any kind of engineering on this scale, people should be cautious.
Despite disasters like the one in Elba and surrounding cities in 1990, Alabama has neither dam safety legislation nor a dam inspection program. It is the only state in the country without such protections.
Like much of the infrastructure throughout the United States, most of the dams in the country are aging – over two thirds of the more than 2,200 Alabama dams found in the National Inventory of Dams are 30 years old or older, according to information put out by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
The National Inventory of Dams is a federal program run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It documents the number and type of dams in each state. The NID lists Alabama as having 2,241 dams. According to Mark Ogden of the ASDSO, that data is out of date, stemming from research done throughout much of the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Renée Casillas of the American Council of Engineering Companies estimates the number of dams in the state is something close to 8,000.
Much of the initial work done to identify the dams in the state came after the Kelly Barnes dam break near Toccoa, Ga. That dam failure occurred in early November of 1977, flooding the nearby campus of Toccoa Falls College, killing 39 people and causing roughly $2.5 million in damages, according to the ASDSO. The disaster spurred then President Jimmy Carter to push for a nation-wide dam inspection program, called the “Phase I Inspection Program,” which lasted from 1978-1981.
According to the ASDSO, the findings of this report led to the foundation of state-level dam safety programs in many of the states throughout the country. However, Alabama did not follow suit with the rest of the nation.
Coming up with an accurate inventory is an important part of any potential dam safety legislation in the state, according to Casillas. Efforts have been made to update the number recently in several counties. The Alabama Office of Water Resources was able to use a grant from FEMA to use multiple techniques, including aerial photography, to update some of these numbers.
In the 16 counties where this work took place, the number of likely NID dams increased from 214 to 866, a 404 percent increase.
An inventory is important for a number of reasons. Not only does it tell you how many dams there are in the state, it also tells you where they are, and how much of a hazard they present to the population. Without this information, it is very difficult to tell people why dam safety is important. Hard numbers might help change that.
There is opposition to dam safety legislation in the state. Efforts have been made several times in the past 15 years to get legislation passed, including in 2003 and 2008, but each time the bill was killed early in the process, according to Casillas.
The American Council of Engineering Companies is a lobbying group that works with the legislature on the part of engineers throughout Alabama. Casillas runs the council almost single-handedly, and deals with any and all matters related to engineering as they come up in the legislative session. That means hundreds of bills a year, usually, and dam safety is only one aspect of what the group is involved with.
The ACEC only recently turned its attention to the issue, getting involved after the bills in 2003 and 2008 were shot down.
The safety issue presented by dams is significant, especially if no one is keeping tabs on high-hazard dams. For the most part, though, that is not the case. The largest dams in the state – hydroelectric and recreational dams run by Alabama Power, the Tennessee Valley Authority or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – are all routinely inspected and regulated according to federal guidelines, according to sources in the Corps of Engineers, Alabama Power and the ACEC.
The smallest of dams, including many of those found on private property such as farms or estates, are often not much of a threat for different reasons. These small dams only hold back a couple hundred gallons of water, and if a failure were to occur, the damage would likely not be extremely significant.
There are some dams between these two extremes, however. These medium-sized dams are the ones that people who are pushing for safety legislation are most concerned about.
The dam on Lake Tholocco at Fort Rucker was a medium-sized earthen dam. It’s failure in 1990 played a direct role in Elba’s flooding. The dam was repaired, but broke again four years later.
These medium dams include amenity lakes – dams in communities or subdivisions – and dams used for mining operations or in the lumber industry for industrial purposes.
These are the kinds of dams that often go unregulated, and it’s simply unclear, according to the ASDSO, just how many there are, or what condition they are in. Many of these have a high potential of hazard based on reports by the Corps of Engineers. That means that they are in places where, if they were to fail, there would be a significant risk to property or life.
Dams don’t just impact human life, however. The damming of the Coosa River system in Northeast Alabama, for instance, has been described by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Center for Biological Diversity as the single greatest extinction event in modern North American history. The construction of the six dams on the Coosa, which began in 1914, resulted in the extinction of at least 36 species, including many mussels and small fish.
Alabama ranks second nationally in species extinction; habitat loss as a result of stream impoundment is a major reason for this ranking, according to the Coosa Riverkeepers.
The building of dams on the Coosa, and others throughout the country, also forever changed the geography of the places where they were built. Some of these places would have been natural landmarks of breathtaking beauty, according to Reid, who has devoted much of his life to defending rivers since that night in Geneva so many years ago.
The Coosa River would have had some of the largest, most beautiful waterfalls in the region, he said, while the Black Warrior River on the west side of the state would have been home to one of the world’s largest abundances of shoal lilies, similar to those found on the Cahaba River in central Alabama.
Yet many of these dams fulfill an important purpose. The dams on the Black Warrior have locks which allow for barge passage. Some of those Black Warrior dams provide hydroelectric power, and many of the large, geography-morphing dams do the same, providing electricity to fuel the nation’s energy-hungry society.
Alabama Power’s dams, many of which were built in the sixties, and some of which were built before the great depression and the introduction of TVA by the New Deal, provide for six percent of the company’s electricity output, according to William Tharpe, Alabama Power’s archivist. That equates to roughly 400,000 households in the state.
Tharpe studies the history of the company and of the dams it operates, and curates small exhibits in a wing of the company headquarters in Birmingham. It is difficult to map the history of dams in Alabama, but he part of his job is to map the history of Alabama Power’s dams.
Most of the dams in the state are privately owned, with no record of when they were constructed or, in some cases, whether they even exist. The best that can be done, as far as a history of dams goes, is to focus on those dams that do have a recorded history. Those are the large, corporate-owned dams such as those run by Alabama Power or TVA, which now operates three dams in the state.
The construction of these large hydroelectric dams started in the early 20th century with the construction of Lay Dam in 1914, Alabama Power’s first dam. The company had finished construction on six dams in the state before the great depression hit, and seven more were built in the 1960s. There are currently 14 Alabama Power dams in the state.
These dams forever changed the look of the state, bringing electricity to the population and morphing free-flowing rivers into massive, beautiful lakes.
The lakes that now dot the state today play important roles in recreation, drawing in tourists. Without the dams, there would be no lakes in Alabama, only rivers. Rivers are also key recreational tools at the state’s disposal, but they typically aren’t as grand as the lakes.
Other large dams include 12 Army Corps of Engineers Dams, three of which straddle the border with Georgia.
There are many battles surrounding dams to this day, including fights over construction of new dams, issues over the relicensing of old ones, attempts to protect endangered wildlife, water policy issues and even efforts to remove dams, especially in other parts of the country.
These issues are all important in Alabama, but the biggest issue among those familiar with the dam situation in the state seems to be the safety legislation issue. It was brought up in a national way by HBO’s John Oliver on his show, “Last Week Tonight,” which took aim at America’s aging infrastructure. Alabama’s lack of dam safety and inspection caught Oliver’s eye, and his show helped bring valuable attention to the fight, according to Casillas.
This kind of national attention might help to bring the issue to the front of people’s attention, but Casillas and others are hesitant to push too hard for legislation. It will likely take time, and multiple parties will have to come together and agree to terms that work for each side.
Until a groundwork can be laid, a successful push for safety legislation can’t happen, according to Casillas.
But that doesn’t mean steps aren’t being taken.
The push for legislation
Failure isn’t common, but it happens. This is the nature of the issue – dams fail, but not often, and unless there is a catastrophic break, it can be difficult to convince people of the importance of safety legislation and inspection.
Small dams fail and wash out roads or cause property damage. Larger ones destroy major sections of infrastructure and put lives in danger. There are plenty of examples.
The Toccoa break is close to home for the people of this state, but failed to bring the kind of attention necessary to force change. The same is true of the levees that broke in Elba after the dam break in Fort Rucker. Fortunately there was no loss of life in that incident, but people shouldn’t wait for a serious accident to start fighting for dam safety, according to Reid.
“I don’t think Alabama should wait until we have our own catastrophe,” he said. “I hate the idea that we should wait until someone gets hurt before we do something.”
Others have made that mistake, like in Toccoa in the late ‘70s. Reid is one of many people who are passionate about this topic.
Riverkeepers throughout the state, like Nelson Brooke for the Black Warrior Riverkeepers, devote time, energy and resources to protecting Alabama’s rivers.
“Anybody that’s out on rivers, streams and lakes -- bass fishermen, recreation of all kinds, boaters, should all be screaming and yelling for dam safety legislation,” Brooke said. “Can you imagine how many people are downstream of a really old, sketchy dam, in a subdivision, and don’t even know that’s above them?”
Dam safety legislation would help to inform people about these issues, as well as prepare them for if the worst were to happen and a dam were to fail.
“This is the right thing to do,” Reid said. “We put this off for too long. We’ve played roulette with this issue when other states have lost the bet.”
Every state other than Alabama has dam safety legislation of some sort. This legislation typically involves inspection of dams – many of which are beginning to show signs of age – as well as documenting and providing an inventory of dams, helping dam owners with liability issues and developing Emergency Action Plans for dams with high hazard potential, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
The ASDSO has helped to advocate for dam safety in many states, but Alabama presents a key battleground for the organization, since it is the only state in the country without safety legislation. Ogden, a project manager with the ASDSO, has helped push for such legislation in Alabama.
According to Ogden, Alabama is in a class of its own, as far as dam safety is concerned.
“I would say they’re probably the worst,” he said. “It’s unknown the number of dams they have. It’s easy to assume the dams they do have don’t fit with accepted standards.”
The Mobile District of the US Army Corps of Engineers struggles with the lack of dam safety legislation, despite the fact that they must adhere to rigorous standards concerning inspection and repair.
Douglas Otto Jr. is the dam safety officer for the district. He says the Corps takes dam safety extremely seriously, and that inspection is a key part of that.
“We have people out on these projects every day – people who operate [them],” he said. “They are our first line of defense.”
Corps dams typically serve some kind of purpose other than simple impoundment, and frequently have locks associated with them for barge and other river traffic. Because of this, there are employees at these dams who monitor them on a daily basis. However, there are other forms of inspection, as well, including routine inspection on an annual level used to collect important data about the possible risks related to specific dams.
Every five years there is an even more thorough inspection, called Periodic Inspection, that utilizes a team of engineers. Every ten years there is Periodic Assessment to reevaluate the risk of specific dams, and to assign dam safety action category ratings for each of the dams in the Corps system. In Alabama, that means 12 dams, including three that straddle the state line with Georgia.
This is manageable since the Corps only has to inspect their own dams. Where they run into trouble, however, is when others in the state request their assistance in inspecting private dams.
“People come to us for assistance, and we try to offer it when we can, but it’s very limited,” he said. The problem is that some of these dams might be upstream of Corps-operated dams, which could be a concern. Those are the kinds of details the Corps’ assessments look at, but they don’t have the resources to look at every dam in the state, the vast majority of which are privately owned.
While state-level dam safety is something the Corps is behind, Otto says whatever rules and regulations are put in place would likely pale in comparison to the program the Corps uses.
“The state’s program would probably be fairly modest,” he said. It would involve inventories, EAPs and certain minimum standards of dams of a certain height, likely 25 feet or greater. Since the Corps is a federal entity, any new dam safety legislation would only affect them in a removed way – but it would help to take pressure off them.
In 2014, the ASDSO joined with the American Society of Civil Engineers and Alabama state Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin of Indian Springs to push for safety legislation. The push came late in the legislative session, and House Bill 610 never got off the ground. The bill would have called for “statewide procedures for the construction, alteration, repair, operation, abandonment, and removal of dams,” according to a legislative fact sheet put out by the ASDSO.
Rep. McClurkin has since retired, and no one from the legislature has stepped up to push for dam safety since her departure. McClurkin could not be reached for comment. The ASCE has also taken a step back because of its tax status, according to Casillas of the ACEC.
The ASCE is an organization set up with 501(c)(3) status, which means its is not allowed to lobby or take part in political activity, Casillas said. It can, however, continue to educate lawmakers, which is an important part of the process with a complex issue like dam safety.
The ACEC, on the other hand, is set up with 501(c)(6) status, which allows the organization to lobby in the legislature, according to Casillas. She said she realized last year that the ASCE couldn’t actually lobby, and decided to step in so that a legal, educated voice could help push for dam safety legislation on the part of engineers in the state.
Residents of Indian Springs got involved with the issue when it was discovered that the dams at Oak Mountain State Park were old and had some structural damage. According to Reid, a survey was done on the dams as part of regular, mandated regulations because of the dams’ location in a state park.
He and Casillas both say that repairs have been made on the dams since the findings of that survey showed “severe structural problems.” However, a report by Cody Owens for the newspaper Weld in Birmingham cited citizens of the area still concerned over the issue as of March of 2015.
Even if the dams at Oak Mountain have been repaired, and others like it have been maintained by the state, how many other impoundments, not found on property owned by state parks, are in even worse condition? This is a question that concerns Reid and others invested about the issue.
The fight for dam safety going forward will be one in the legislature, but a lot of work has to be done before any further bills make it to the floor. House Bill 610 and others before it showed a lack of patience on the part of lobbyists and lawmakers, according to Casillas. The opposition for this kind of legislation is such that in order for it to be passed, a solid foundation must be laid.
But there are some big obstacles in the way.
The biggest of those obstacles is the opposition – those who are against dam safety legislation, and who have fought it in the past. The problem these groups have isn’t with the safety issue – no one wants dams to fail. However, there are many parties who would rather not have people on their land inspecting their dams and telling them how to maintain them.
Ogden cites a general disdain for government oversight in this region as a reason why dam safety legislation hasn’t yet been passed. Reid agrees that this is a big obstacle for any potential legislation.
“Obviously you have the general interest of, ‘I don’t want someone coming onto my property and telling me what to do on my property,’” Reid said. But he finds fault in this argument.
Reid compares the “property rights question,” as he calls it, to someone driving a car. A car is someone’s private property, and they are allowed to do what they want with it, to a point. They must, however, have a license to drive it, and they have to follow rules that protect the lives and property of others. The same should be true, Reid argues, of dams.
Some more specific opposition groups include homebuilders, ALFA, forestry groups, mining companies and utility companies, according to Casillas. Most of the utility and mining companies already inspect their dams to comply with federal regulations – at least the biggest ones.
Coal ash dams and other small dams, however, are often not inspected with the same scrutiny as larger dams. A coal ash dam in Kingston, Tenn., broke in late December, 2008. The resulting flood released millions of gallons of coal ash, a toxic byproduct of coal combustion, which cost millions of dollars in cleanup efforts and property damage.
The hazard to the environment and to people involved with this kind of dam failure is huge, according to Reid.
Property owners might also want a seat at the table during the debate over dam safety legislation. This includes private property owners who have lakes or ponds on their land, as well as amenity developers, since recreational lakes are popular editions for communities.
Many farmers and rural property owners have ponds on their land, but the majority of these likely won’t be covered by any potential legislation. Any bill will focus on dams of a certain size, according to Reid and Casillas. Alabama doesn’t have the resources to investigate every dam in the state, and such an undertaking would be a waste of taxpayer money when considering the potential harm these smaller dams could cause.
State resources is a big part of the problem moving forward. The budget in Alabama is already stretched thin, and gathering the needed capital to inspect the dams in the state, even if only accounting for dams of a certain size, is a difficult task.
“It would take about $1 million to get the resources in place to set up a department to inspect the 8,000 dams in the state,” Casillas said. She cited other issues the state is looking at – education, corrections and other infrastructure – as a significant reason why this is such a difficult situation.
But not all 8,000 dams are 25 feet or higher, which seems to be the mark the ACEC is pushing for in its lobbying. In order to understand how many do fall into that category, some work needs to be done.
“The Office of Water Resources has been instructed to construct an inventory of the state’s dams,” she said. But they ran out of resources before they could finish, and only completed about 60 percent of the work, according to Casillas.
This groundwork needs to be laid before another push will be made in the state legislature. Another key issue is finding someone within the legislature who will pick up the cause now that Rep. McClurkin has retired.
To do this, Casillas and the ACEC started with the governor’s office. The idea is to spread the word about the issue and get people to understand the risk. The governor’s office was surprised there was nothing already in place, Casillas said.
They also looked at Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur. He was skeptical at first, worrying that Casillas was merely looking for work for the engineers she represented. When shown some of the facts, however, he took a step back.
“We’re talking about licensed engineers in the state who have, because of their license, the obligation to protect the public,” Casillas said. “They are the guardians of our infrastructure.”
She tried to convince Orr of the need for this kind of legislation, but was rebuffed because the senator had other, more pressing issues on his plate, such as the governor’s tax package.
Dam failures are rare, catastrophic ones even more so. Because they don’t happen often, they aren’t in the public’s eye, and people don’t see it as a pressing issue.
Casillas herself has had to put it on the backburner. Since she and the ACEC are the only lobbying groups for engineers in the state, and since engineering is such a broad area, she has been busy this legislative session. Over 100 bills related to engineers have come up already, she said.
“The focus has been taken off of the dam situation a little bit,” she said.
She still thinks the issue is important, though, and she still spends time to educate others — especially those opposed to dam safety — about the risks and the stakes.
She mentioned a couple of specific examples she uses, including the Baldwin Hills Dam break near Los Angeles in 1963. This was the first dam failure to be broadcast live over television. It was a huge disaster. Five people were killed, but it would have been worse had the dam not had an Emergency Action Plan, a big part of what dam safety legislation would put into place.
“We don’t have that in Alabama,” she said. “That’s what’s really scary… When I go around to people who oppose the bill, that’s the message.”
Moving forward, Casillas is continuing to educate people. There is an attempt to set aside more funding for the inventory, which will be a vital part of showing need for any potential bill.
The ACEC will also continue to try to establish potential partners and sponsors within the legislature. A senator or representative who has a background or education in engineering would be a good ally, Casillas said.
Not everyone in the state is happy with the pace and apparent lack of progress being made in the legislature. The Indian Springs community, for example, is still upset about the dams at Oak Mountain. There are other groups, such as the Alabama Rivers Alliance, that are involved in the issue, as well as the ASDSO and the Office of Water Resources for the state.
The issue is important, and the state shouldn’t wait until there is a catastrophe, as Reid says, but the argument made by the legislature is that it isn’t the most pressing need for the state. Those fighting for the bill want to get it right – they want to ensure the most money possible from the federal government, which will help once legislation is passed.
It will take time and effort before that can happen.
Reid works for the ARA, which takes part in policy debates regarding the rivers in Alabama. He mostly works with water management policy, and he has urged Alabama to develop an extensive water management plan – another issue the state has yet to tackle. Other nearby states, including Georgia and Florida, have adopted such plans.
The ARA approaches the issue of dams on a number of fronts, from water management to safety for stakeholders to environmental factors. Their goal is to protect the rivers of the state so that people can use them for recreation and, most importantly, for drinking water. Reid, and others in the ARA, are passionate about the protection of the environment, as well. That means keeping pollution out of rivers, cleaning rivers, protecting aquatic species and much more.
But the ARA is also are deeply involved in the safety side of the issue.
“Our members are the ones at risk,” Reid said. “That’s why we’re engaged in it.”
The ARA has its own ideas about what kind of policy should go into shaping dam safety.
“Our proposal – The Rivers Alliance proposal – is that we adopt some formal program in Alabama,” Reid said. “It’s called Dam Safety.”
The program would include inspection, helping with the construction of dams and giving permits to build new dams of specific size or risk, he said. Inventory continues to be a key issue, as well.
“The state needs to know not only where one dam is, but they need to know how many dams are sort of stacked up against each other,” he said. “What you don’t want is to have a cascading event of one dam breaking and then it breaks another one and another one and you end up with a really serious problem.”
Besides taking part in these policy debates – including an important role in the relicensing of major dams, such as Alabama Power’s dams along the Coosa River – the ARA also helps to bring like-minded people together over the issues surrounding rivers. This includes everyday people, stakeholders, those who enjoy using the river for boating and fishing, as well as biologists and ecologists.
Like the ASCE, the ARA plays the role of informing lawmakers about specific issues related to rivers. They also fight legal battles over issues they think are important, including the relicensing of the Coosa.
The relicensing process for dams involves a number of guidelines put in place by the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee. These regulations include specific requirements for inspection and maintenance. FERC also has environmental and recreational requirements, according to Jim Hancock, a lawyer for Alabama Power.
Alabama Power, like the Corps of Engineers, has a strong inspection and regulation plan in place. Besides having to comply with federal guidelines, it’s also in the company’s best interest to make sure their dams are fully operational.
However, Alabama Power is much less transparent about their inspection program.
“Alabama Power Company maintains a dam safety inspection program for its water-retaining structures. These include inspections at our hydroelectric facilities, ash ponds at fossil facilities, and other dam structures (e.g. gypsum ponds, storage reservoirs, etc.),” the company said in a statement.
It’s still important to note that Alabama Power’s dams, as well as the Corps-run dams and TVA’s dams, are not the ones being talked about as part of safety regulations. As Casillas said, the dams that really need to be inspected are being inspected.
But there are thousands of others that aren’t.
Dams and the environment
Alabama is one of the most biodiverse states in the country – the most biodiverse east of the Mississippi River. Much of that diversity comes from the state’s aquatic wildlife found in rivers.
The Cahaba River alone is one of the most diverse rivers in the world, containing more fish species per mile than any river of its size in North America, according to the Cahaba River Society.
“The Cahaba River is an absolute jewel of biodiversity in North America,” Reid said. But the damming of the state’s rivers is hurting the chances of some of these species.
Alabama is home to some phenomenal fish, according to Reid. Many of these are at risk because of the way dams change their natural environments.
One example is the Alabama sturgeon, a monstrous, 10- to 15-foot fish that has been described as “a remnant of the dinosaur era,” Reid said. “These are like swimming alligators.”
The sturgeon live most of their lives out in the Gulf of Mexico before swimming back upstream to spawn.
Historically they would travel all the way up to the Coosa River in Northeast Alabama and into Georgia to fulfill this purpose.
Another example would be the American eel, which lives most of its life in fresh water but swims out into the Gulf and eventually somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean – scientists aren’t exactly sure where – to spawn.
Another example is the shoal bass, a game fish that lives in white water sections on rivers.
“It takes a great deal of skill to fish for this fish,” Reid said. “Because they live in these holes, and they’re very wary of shadow.” These are some of the premier sport fish in the region.
All three of these examples are threatened by dams.
The Alabama sturgeon is perhaps in the most serious trouble. Without the ability to swim upriver and spawn, the species’ numbers have fallen dramatically.
“The fish has been basically lost to us,” Reid said. Efforts had been made to track the last known individual, but the battery in the transponder died and no one knows if the fish is still alive.
The eel is a little bit more adaptable. They will swim up to a dam and wait until a channel is opened to swim through the system. However, this is a dangerous proposition, since locks opening on dams typically means barges coming through, and eel can easily be caught in the propellers.
The shoal bass won’t cross flat water, and only lived along the Chatahootchee River system. When that river was dammed, it drastically reduced the fish’s habitat, to the point where the number of shoal bass in Alabama can be counted on one hand, Reid said.
The species that have evolved in these rivers have evolved to live with the connectivity that the rivers have had for millions of years. When that connectivity is cut off, and the habitats the species live in is changed forever, the consequences can be severe.
There are countless other species either at risk or already lost, including many mussel and small fish populations. Mussels depend on fish to spawn, and when fish can’t navigate the river, neither species is able to thrive.
On the Cahaba River, for example, there are huge mussels. But there are no small ones. The large mussels are approaching the end of their lifespan, and when they die off, there will be no more individuals left of those species in the Cahaba. These animals are in some cases 50 years old, dating back to when the Alabama River was dammed. Since then, they have been unable to spawn.
There are people who are trying to do something about these problems. Paul Johnson, along with the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center, have worked to identify remaining species, and are trying to save them. Paul Freeman of the Nature Conservancy has also done work to try and save some of the species endangered by the impoundment of rivers.
Some efforts seen around the country include trucking fish around dams so that they can get up or downstream. Others include growing fish in labs and releasing them into the wild. There are others, too. Whatever the case may be, however, these efforts are extremely expensive and inefficient.
The Corps of Engineers does some work to try to help reduce their impact. It is difficult to help with problems of connectivity – the rivers have been turned into series of lakes, and connectivity as it used to be no longer exists. However, there are other things they can and have done to help.
“We release waters at certain times of the year for certain purposes,” Otto said. This includes trying to maintain water levels during spawning seasons for fish and mussels, allowing mussel beds and spawning beds the right amount of water and the right kind of flow, in some cases. It also includes releasing water during the summer to increase oxygen levels below impoundments, which is one of the biggest issues caused by dams.
Alabama Power also has some environmental concerns. FERC requires some attention be paid to the environment, and the company has tried to make some efforts for specific species. For instance, the company is working to protect the habitat of the flattened musk turtle on Smith Lake.
In the case of both Alabama Power and the Corps of Engineers, their dams do much more harm than good on an environmental level. Damming a river completely changes the ecosystem.
“It is the most destructive act that you can do in a river,” Reid said. He compared it to putting a block in an artery and destroying the connectivity needed by the body, just as dams destroy connectivity needed by rivers. “That system has evolved for that connectivity.”
The damming of the Coosa River system is “probably the most notorious” of many stark examples of the impacts of dams on rivers, according to Reid. Again, the single greatest extinction event in modern North American history, according to the EPA.
The construction of those dams came at a time when people didn’t know how the environment would be impacted. They know that now, however, and that’s a big reason why Reid and the ARA are fighting Alabama Power over the relicensing of the dams on the Coosa.
“I understand the argument that you don’t punish the sins of the father on the son,” Reid said. “The question is, can we operate those systems better today than we have in the past to at least try to minimize the impact of those dams going forward? I think we can.”
The relicensing process has taken around a decade and is ongoing.
Reid understands that there are those who would value what dams bring to the table, such as electricity, water and transportation, over the preservation of certain fish and wildlife populations. However, he thinks the environment should at least be part of the discussion going forward.
Dams present problems for wildlife across the country – not just in Alabama. Efforts have been made in places throughout the country to find more permanent solutions for these problems. The best way to do that is to remove dams.
Dam removal is a tricky thing. In some ways, removal is more complicated than installation, according to Reid. You have to be careful when removing dams, because the result can be severe flooding downstream and significant damage to the river itself.
When a dam stops up a river, it collects tons and tons of sediment behind it. Rivers are powerful movers of materials – those sediments would naturally end up washing down into the Mobile Delta area, but instead are caught behind dams. A lot of what the Corps of Engineers does is dredge waterways to remove this sediment and allow for boat passage.
Over time, this sediment builds up to the point where it can become a serious concern, shrinking the size of reservoirs from the bottom and backing water up into tributaries upstream.
When a dam is removed, this sediment, along with the water backed up by the impoundment, is washed downstream. This can smother the river below where the dam used to be, causing serious short-term damage. However, in many documented cases, the river bounces back fairly quickly.
“It’s almost like the river is just waiting for the dam to go and then life just returns,” Reid said.
A specific example of a success story surrounding dam removal comes from the Columbus, Ga., area. The river there was dammed, but the dam was no longer serving its purpose. The town decided to remove the dam, and once it was taken out, the river returned to its natural state. Tourists started coming in to enjoy the river, and the city has benefited financially while the river has become healthier.
“Instead of having four or five different species that you have in the lakes, you end up having, over the course of just a few years, hundreds of species that are coming back,” Reid said. “It’s really encouraging that, if we can just get out of the way, the river is going to do the work for us. It’s going to come back. It’s going to be that vibrant resource that we’ve sort of always had, but didn’t know what we were missing.”
Another aspect of the environmental impact of dams, one that people may not understand right away, is the huge effect dams have on the geography of the country.
Alabama, for instance, has no natural lakes – only manmade ones. Yet thousands of people every year enjoy the lakes in the state. What’s below those lakes, what used to be there, is a history that isn’t visible to the naked eye.
“The greatest natural attractions in Alabama are the waterfalls and the Cahaba Lilies,” Reid said.
Those lilies bring in hundreds, sometimes thousands of people every year to see the massive blooms on the shoals of the Cahaba River.
“What we now know is that that is not the largest historic grove of shoal lilies in Alabama,” Reid said. “The actual largest grove, or shoal of these lilies was actually right at Tuscaloosa on the Black Warrior River, which is now under a Corps of Engineers lake.”
Brooke of the Black Warrior Riverkeepers also talked about what the Warrior would have looked like, back before the dams were built. There was a place on the river where Native Americans used to come to trade, and the river crossing was a huge meeting place for different tribes, he said. That, too, is lost beneath the industry-polluted waters of the Black Warrior.
“You can imagine the recreation on the river in Tuscaloosa,” Reid said. “The University of Alabama right on one of the biggest series of shoals in the state – it would be a Mecca for people coming out and using the river.”
The geography of other places in the state has also been irrevocably altered. While there are still beautiful sites in the state, including waterfalls, some of the most magnificent examples are gone, hidden beneath manmade lakes.
“The most spectacular waterfalls in the state are currently under water,” Reid said. This includes the waterfalls that are now under Smith Lake, and those along the Coosa River.
The Coosa River specifically would have been one of the most beautiful landmarks in Alabama, according to Reid. It would have been like seeing the Nile, he said.
“It seems impossible that we had rivers like that in this state,” he said.
Rivers in their natural form might help to bring tourism and economic benefit to an area, but it’s a difficult argument to make. Lakes also bring in tourists, as well as provide electricity through hydroelectric plants.
This hydroelectric energy has been marketed as clean energy, green energy, and is better in some ways than burning coal for electricity. Brooke, however, doesn’t buy that dams are creators of clean energy.
“Dams have been roped into the conversation as a green source of power,” he said. “That is certainly not something that we subscribe to, because of all the harm that dams do to natural river systems.”
Still, there are a number of benefits that go with dams, and a number of parties whose interests lie in dams.
Reid, and others who aim to protect the environment, understand this. They are not pushing for the removal of every dam, or anything nearly so drastic. Instead, they want policymakers and interest groups to understand the environmental and geographic side of the issue going forward. These are the kinds of issues that should be taken into account during the discussion, Reid said.
The state of dams
Dams are a vital part of America’s infrastructure, but they are aging. Dam safety is a key issue throughout the nation and the world, and perhaps especially so in Alabama, since the state has no dam safety legislation.
That fight will take time, but there are things that can be done in the meantime to help protect people and the environment from the impact of dams.
Inventory is an important part of that, and efforts are being made to set aside funding for that purpose. The removal of obsolete dams can also help restore the environment to a more natural condition, something that would be good for wildlife, as well as potentially good for the economy of those places.
The most important thing going forward is for groups like the ACEC, ASDSO and the ARA to continue to educate lawmakers and the public on these key issues, so that informed decisions can be made regarding policy.
Reid does a lot of things related to rivers for the Rivers Alliance. But his passion for the safety side of the issue comes from his personal love of rivers for their beauty and recreational value, as well as from his personal history with dam safety problems.
“It was the breaking of the dam on Fort Rucker that flooded Elba, and almost flooded Geneva, that brought me out in the middle of the night to fill sandbags,” he said. “Why didn’t we have a program in place before that to inspect that dam? Why did it take losing a town before we understood what the issue was, and certainly, why did we not respond after that?”
There have been few explanations about why Alabama has been so slow to make a change in this regard, the most common answer being that people in this state don’t like being told what to do. Is that enough of a reason?
“Why are we still talking in 2015 about legislation that would require inspections of dams?” Reid asked. “We lost Elba  years ago. It’s past time to fix this problem.”