"Who's Watching the Water?"
All year long on Alabama Public Radio, we’re been looking at water. In other words, we’ve been reporting on Alabama’s water supply and the health of our rivers. Critics of Alabama water policy often focus on a lack of state regulation. Environmentalists say this failure of oversight has impacted the state’s ecology in ways ranging from minor to catastrophic.
“Beautiful, unbelievable, nature at its finest,” says Alice Taylor of Northport. Would you get this excited over what looks like a white Easter Lily? Taylor’s come to see these flowers eight years in a row… “Because every year is different,” she adds. “This year, the lilies are beautiful. They stand up straight. The river has cooperated, and the weather has cooperated.”
Once per year, these lilies bloom on the rocky shoals in the middle of the Cahaba river. It’s one of a handful of spots in the Southeastern U.S. where they appear. It’s a big day for nature lovers and for little town of West Blocton. Every year, thousands of people flock to West Blocton for the pot luck lunch and to hear the local orchestra. But the main event is the Cahaba Lilies. Fans board shuttle buses to the river, and stroll out into the water for a close look. Some wear rubber waders like fly fishermen, but that’s not for everybody…
“Waders are for wimps,” says Lawrence Davenport, a veteran of the festival. That includes a few tumbles off the slippery rocks and into the water where the lilies grow… “I’ve lost two cameras, and had a near drowning experience in pursuing these plants,” he says.
Davenport teaches biology at Samford University near Birmingham. That means he knows a dirty little secret regarding the Cahaba lilies. They’re not supposed to be here. The lilies used to grow forty miles away in the Black Warrior river near Tuscaloosa. “Four miles of lilies, if you can imagine that,” says Davenport. Then, a quarter century ago, locks and dams were built on the Black Warrior so coal barges could float down to the Gulf of Mexico. “And, the locks, of course, allow the boats to bypass the shoals,” he says. “But, in the process the water depth was made forty feet deeper than normal, which drowned out these plants.”
So, the lilies started appearing in the Cahaba River and a cottage industry began in West Blocton. Dislocating flowers may not sound like an ecological disaster. But, environmentalists say it gets worse when you go to the Coosa River…
“Right now, we’re at the tail waters of Logan Martin Dam, says” Frank Chitwood, the Coosa Riverkeeper. He leads a non-profit group that works to protect the part of the Coosa that flows through Alabama. “We see a half dozen fisherman over here, who are fishing,” says Chitwood. “And we see a couple dozen birds who are fishing. And basically what we’re seeing is the Coosa River making power.”
The Logan Martin dam stretches from bank to bank across the Coosa. The concrete wall is topped with a skeleton of electrical towers that funnel energy to Alabama Power customers. The utility built its first dam on the Coosa River in 1914. Chitwood focus is on the damage he says they caused.
“The cumulative impact of the construction of dams on the Coosa River led to the extinction of forty aquatic species. It’s considered the largest modern man-made extinction event in North America.”
And those early twentieth century dams formed the backbone of Alabama Power.
Bill Tharpe is Alabama Power’s historian and archivist. An exhibit at the utility’s headquarters in Birmingham is supposed to show how Alabama Power co-exists with the environment now. But, in 1914, even Tharpe says not so much… “There was no, thought to that,” he admits. Tharpe says ignoring the ecological impact of dam construction was just part of the times. “The whole country was going through the process. States and the federal government and private industry were building hydro plants to supply electricity to the growing industry in this country. And, there was little thought given to the environmental impacts.” However, Tharpe insists times have changed and Alabama Power has changed with them. The process to renew federal dam permits includes how these structures harm the environment. “We work with Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and ADEM, to help identify those habitats to stabilize them and do what we can to make sure any species is protected.”
ADEM is short for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Efforts by Alabama Power are unlikely to bring Coosa River wildlife back from extinction. And, even if they did, environmentalists say there’s more to worry about. They complain that Alabama doesn’t regulate dams, nor is there a safety program to avoid the kind of damage done on the Coosa. The state says it doesn’t need to…
“Dams are related by…good engineering practice.” That’s Lance Le Fleur. He’s head of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. “There’s not a problem with it right now. It’s a potential problem, if there’s a determination that there’s not appropriate monitoring of the dams by those who own them. But, we haven’t seen that yet.”
And concerns over an apparent lack of state oversight don’t stop there. The Mobile Area Water and Sewage System draws sixty five million gallons of water a day from Big Creek lake using this pumping station. It’s Mobile’s primary source of drinking water. On the northern end of the state, Huntsville Utility siphons thirty million gallons a day here…
“Every one of those instances, where they take that water, it’s unlawful…” Mitch Reid is with the environmental group Alabama Rivers Alliance. His complaint is that there is no statewide water policy… “You are subject to anybody downstream, coming in and cutting you off, because you don’t have a right to use that water, you don’t have a lawful right to use that water.”
Make no mistake, utility companies in Mobile, Huntsville, or anywhere else in the state aren’t breaking the law by pumping water for their customers. Mitch Reid’s complaint is that there is no law to break.
“The Alabama Department of Environmental Management is charged with protecting water quality.” We took Reid’s complaint to Lance LeFleur, the head of ADEM… “We do not have regulatory authority over water usage, water quantity—except to the degree that reduced flows may impact water quality…”
“It’s particularly problematic for our cities," says Reid. His complaint is that Alabama manages its water through what’s called Riperian law from the late nineteenth century. If your property is next to a water source, you get the water, if it’s not—you’re out of luck. “In other words, we don’t need all the people in Birmingham to have to get in their cars to go to the Black Warrior River to drink out of a water fountain.”
While all sides wrestle with the best way to govern Alabama’s water supply, the citizens of West Blocton have just crowned Miss Cahaba Lily…
“Well, I was a little nervous at first, because my voice was going out because we had the softball yesterday. But once I got up there, I was okay.” Sixteen year old Carol Lane Morris will wear the sash and crown of Miss Cahaba Lily for the coming year. No talent portion for her or the other contestants… “We had to fill out an application about our citizenship, our leadership and community activities and we had to write a one page essay on the importance of the Cahaba River and the Cahaba lilies in our town.”
Part of Lane’s job is to pitch West Blocton, which would likely have been a very different town had to not been for unregulated dams in Alabama.