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Where Does Alabama's Water Go?

Credit Stan Ingold
Living shoreline off Helen Wood Park in Mobile Alabama.

All year long on Alabama Public Radio, we’ve been looking at water. Specifically, the condition of Alabama’s water supply and the health of our rivers. Rain is usually considered a blessing. It makes your yard green and it helps crops grow. Too much of a good thing however, can cause flooding. Either way the water has to go somewhere.

When it rains in Tuscaloosa and Huntsville, things like erosion and a threat to wildlife may not cross your mind. For people living along the gulf coast, it’s a different story. Rainwater that falls in the Central and Northern parts of the state typically travels south, and the Mobile area is as south as you can get in Alabama….

“We’re the bottom, the end point of the entire Mobile Bay water shed.”

Casi Calloway holds the title of Mobile Baykeeper. She heads a non-profit group that tries to protect the environment around the bay…

“So two thirds of all the state and all the pollution and every flush and every big rain storm and every event that happens upstream impacts us down here.”

That makes storm water runoff public enemy number one for marine life in and around the bay.

“If it rains a bunch in north Alabama or anywhere upstream, we end up closing oyster beds for harvesting. We close shrimping we close seafood for being harvested which is a huge economic driver for our community as well.”

While large quantities of water and pollution are obvious problems, there is one that people tend to forget about…

“Mud is a major factor and a major problem we see contributing to the death and die off of grasses and all those important areas that end up being fisheries for shrimp and spawning for fish.”

Mobile Baykeeper works to help maintain living shorelines like this one in Helen Wood Park on the way to Dauphin Island. This is where we find Baykeeper’s program director Jason Kudulis. 

As he suits up to walk through and check the oyster bed, Kudulis explains the purpose of the concrete rings poking out just above the surface of the water…

“What we’re looking at here is where they put some construction materials out as part of the restoration project. This has a couple of benefits, one is that it is going to slow the wave action and cause that natural marsh to regenerate.”

The other benefit is that it will act like an artificial reef for critters living in the marsh areas. And there is a lot of life around here…

“We can walk over to the water’s edge and look for blue crabs, I noticed there was a school of mullets here this morning, several bird species, we got some night heron, some great egret, there is an osprey platform over there that seems to be active, it was flying overhead not too long ago.”

Mobile Baykeeper isn’t the only group in town looking after the area around the Bay. The Mobile Bay National Estuary Program was started with amendments to the “Clean Water Act” in 1987. Roberta Swann is the agency’s director. She says The Mobile Bay Watershed covers much of the state…

“If you can imagine an upside down Christmas tree laid over the state of Alabama, all of that water that’s covered by that Christmas tree, at the tip of the tree, that’s Mobile Bay.”

Swann says that is a lot of water…

“So everything that happens upstream, within that watershed and that large coverage area, which is the 4th largest by water volume and the 6th largest by area throughout the United States, all that water ends up in Mobile Bay.”

If rain hits your yard or even the pavement, all of that water and everything in it, eventually makes it to the bay. If it rains hard enough and long enough, Swann says the very landscape in coastal Alabama is at risk…

“There are lots of areas throughout our two coastal counties with highly erodible soils, there’s a lot of sand mixed in with the dirt that have steep slopes.”

And coastal areas get over five and half feet a rain per year and Swann says that does not help matters…

“So if you add big rain drops falling at a very fast speed over a short amount of time onto highly erodible soils where there are steep slopes, erosion becomes a huge issue.”

That is where Thompson Engineering comes in. When runoff was causing problems in the towns of Spanish Fort and Daphne, they were called in to do something about it. One area leading to a tributary known as Joe’s Branch was impacted by years of development from a nearby subdivision.

“Urban development impacts runoff, the volume of runoff is larger and the velocity is larger and the streams just can’t take it.”

That is Emery Baya, an environmental engineer and vice president of Thompson Engineering. He says this site was particularly bad…

“Where we’re standing right now, which is the head of the restoration project was about a thirty foot deep gulley, is what it looked like. This whole channel that we’re looking down was a severely eroded channel.”

Baya says the soil flushed from this area eventually made it to Mobile Bay where it will impact coastal life, but there was another immediate concern for the surrounding area…

“We’re right south of Highway 31, it’s hard to see right now but to our south is Westminster Village retirement community and this erosion not only was an environmental problem but it was threatening the roadway and it was threatening the residences.”

Baya says they built a type of speed bump and filter system to fix the problem…

“Storm water comes from north of here across highway 31, flows under a culvert that comes into the pool that we’re standing above. And it goes down and there is a series of rock weirs that basically as it flows over those weirs it dissipates energy and the erosion has been controlled.”

Efforts like this require collaborations between communities. Since water sheds do not follow political boundaries, sometimes cities have to work together. Ashley Campbell is the Environmental Programs Manager for the city of Daphne. She says the cities of Spanish Fort and Daphne are working well together…

“ Spanish Fort and Daphne have two great mayors they’re working together. We have a D’Olive watershed intergovernmental task force which was part of the original D’Olive watershed management plan.”

Campbell says the issue of storm water runoff is something everyone needs to be concerned about and everyone needs to do their part to help…

“You can’t point fingers, water flows downhill. So you’re inheriting an issue that’s occurred over time so you can’t say “well they did it, she did it, he did it.” So what you have to do is come together, you have to form a team, and you have to work together.”

Efforts continue on extending the work done at Joe’s Branch with the hope that projects like these will continue to help keep the land where it is now and out of the bay.

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