© 2021 Alabama Public Radio

920 Paul Bryant Drive
Digital Media Center
Gate 61 35487

(800) 654-4262
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

"Where The Water Flows"

It’s Sunday afternoon on Lake Guntersville. It’s ninety five degrees outside and Douglas Webster is calling it a day.

“It’s okay. It’s a little slow. Still, the fry…we were finding fry around the piers.” And if you don’t know what a fry is… “Baby fish,” says Douglas Webster. He's a bass fisherman. That’s where all the lingo comes from Water laps While Webster secures his bass boat, Braulio Pedroso is just now putting his fishing rod in the water…

“Oh, I just came in about five minutes ago, and they started to bite already. I bet it will be good when the sun goes down a little bit.”

But Pedroso isn’t interested in catching bass. He’s sitting on a wooden dock with his back to all the boats out on the lake today. Pedroso is fishing for crappies… “Crappie’s the best. They’re good eating, for everybody, the kids when you filet them. It’s white meat and tasty…

For Braulio Pedroso and Douglas Webster, Lake Guntersville is a fishing hole. For cities like Muscle Shoals, Florence, Decatur and Huntsville, there’s a more basic need and filling that need can get loud… Lake Guntersville is part of the Tennessee River which is a primary source of drinking water in north Alabama. This pumping station draws water from the Tennessee for residents of Huntsville.

“We can go anywhere down to thirty million gallons a day all the way up to sixty or seventy five million gallons, whatever the demand is…” Gary Bailey works for Huntsville Utilities. He says demand is so predictable, you can set your watch to it… “The peak times are early in the morning, and they’re on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday…” And, Bailey says it’s not due to showers, or toilets, but rather…watering the lawn, “And, every sprinkler guy sets the sprinklers up for Monday, Wednesday, Friday. And they set up all up for the same time. So, there are our days when we get hit hardest, are Monday, Wednesday, Friday in the morning.”

Four turbines pull water from the Tennessee River. From here, it travels four miles through sixty inch pipes that date back to the 1960’s. The first stop is here at Huntsville’s South Parkway Water Treatment Plant. It sits behind a locked security gate just south of town. Chlorine and other chemicals are added to remove bacteria and pollutants. Then, Brewer says, the next step is a series of filters.

“These filters will trap anything point four or five microns, or larger. And all the bacteria is larger than point four or five microns, so even without the treatment these filters could capture the particles that are coming through the water.”

But, it’s not just bacteria that concerns environmentalists. There are two coal fired power plants on the Tennessee River, one to the east side of the state and one to the west, That’s raises the worry of chemicals like arsenic and mercury getting into the water. Critics say when there’s a risk of water contamination, poor and rural communities are usually hit the hardest. APR’s Alex AuBuchon looked into how efforts to resolve a concern over coal ash may wind up hurting one town…

There’s a welcome sign at the city limits of Uniontown, Alabama. It reads it’s a “nice place to live.” This community is in the heart of the state’s impoverished black belt region. Along with the local Dollar General, the feed store, and the town auto shop, residents of Uniontown say they have a coal ash problem…

“Oh, it’s a foggy smell. It smells really disgusting.”

Esther Calhoun has lived in Uniontown for twenty years… “I smelled it about three weeks ago when we went out to the landfill, It makes you gag, it really makes you sick.” Calhoun is referring to the Arrowhead landfill just outside of town, and she’s not the only one complaining… “I thought I was moving to a nice safe environment… Uniontown resident Ben Eaton is retired school teacher “And to face this…we have a number of problems that need to be taken care of. And the landfill is top priority."

The arrowhead landfill brought Uniontown residents together for a community meeting. Esther Calhoun organized the event for the group Black Belt Citizens’ Fight for Health and Justice. She says supporters of landfill promised good paying jobs, and that happened—but only for a while… ”But the thing about it, if you talk to some of them now, they really hate it because they didn’t really know what it was doing to the community. They really didn’t know, because they were getting a lot of money. A thousand dollars a week is a lot of money. And those who think about it now, the jobs didn’t last very long. It was to plan it, and go.”

And the situation took another turn about six years ago. Five million tons of coal ash spilled from Kingston dam break. It was called the worst spill of its type in history. The hazard posed by coal ash takes a little explaining. Coal ash is the byproduct of coal fired power plants. It contains chemicals like mercury, cadium, and arsenic.

“When you put coal ash in water, contaminants will be easily leached out from the water, Dr. Avnar Vengosh specializes in coal ash pollution at Duke University. “and if you have effluent in coal ash ponds, those effluents could be enriched in those contaminants.”

Tennessee’s problem became Uniontown’s when millions of tons of coal ash was stored at the Arrowhead landfill. “It was dumped right in a black community, right in front of their homes. That was terrifying. Esther Calhoun ‘Cause my neighbor, she lived right there and she was an older lady, she was like 72, and she would sit on that porch and she was terrified just looking at it. You know, I can’t go anywhere because this is mostly a poor residence. I can’t move, where am I gonna go?” And the Kingston spill isn’t the only possible source of coal ash that has environmentalists worried. What you’re hearing are the generators at the Gorgas Steam Plant, just north of Birmingham. It’s one of nine power plants at work across the length and breadth of the state. Nationwide, plants like these produce a reported one hundred and fifty million tons of coal ash each year.

Avner Vengosh “So what we have in the U.S. is a situation that we are protecting the sky because of preventing emission of metals and contaminants to the atmosphere. But at the same time, the level of contaminants in coal ash is being further concentrated.” One concern is that Alabama Power’s coal ash isn’t concentrated in one spot like Uniontown. The Southern Environmental Law Center says there are nine coal ash storage ponds in Alabama. All of them are long major rivers. APR news asked Alabama Power on a number of occasions to comment on the coal ash situation. Each time, the utility declined. Off tape, Alabama Power says other forms of pollution like storm water runoff do more harm. The utility also insists that they monitor their coal ash along with state and federal inspectors. Vengosh says there’s a hole in those policies. “Each of the coal ash ponds has what we call outfall, which is regulated by the state with respect to the volume of effluent that is allowed to be discharged from the coal ash pond into the rivers or lakes that are associated with those coal ash pond. However, the levels of contaminants in those effluents in the outfalls are not regulated.”

Back at the Uniontown meeting, residents talk about what life here was like before the Kingston Coal ash arrived and what it’s like now. Calhoun recalls dropping by one of her neighbors… “When I would go down there to visit, I couldn’t even sit out there, you know, in the yard. Mostly when you live in the country you sit on the porch, you hang your clothes out, all that changed. You have a garden, she used to have a little garden right in front of her house, all that stuff changed. “ Regulations are finally catching up. Just last month, the EPA imposed strict limits on the amount of toxic chemicals that can be released from ash ponds into waterways. Those caps will take effect in the next five years. In response, both the TVA and Alabama Power say they plan to eventually close their ash ponds, and power companies across the country are expected to follow suit. The catch for communities like Uniontown is that the use of coal is expected to remain steady, and all that ash still has to go somewhere. On the top of the list is landfills – just like Arrowhead Landfill, which is already advertising itself to companies nationwide as the perfect place to send coal ash. So for Ben Eaton, Esther Calhoun and all the residents of Uniontown, things may get a lot worse before they get better.

Back on the road to find out where your water comes from, we move from the Tennessee River in north Alabama, to Cities like Tuscaloosa and Birmingham in the central part of the state. These communities rely on water from the Black Warrior river basin. A series of locks and dams was put in to create Lake Tuscaloosa. Residents here drink the water from the lake while coal barges carry cargo down the river to the Gulf of Mexico. This arrangement doesn’t make everybody happy…

“Well, the smell is similar to a sewer…” That’s Penny Behling. She’s visiting Tuscaloosa from North Carolina on business… “The water color is a brown color, and you see…actually, we as stand here talking, we can see the current moving, and we see trash in the water.” Behling isn’t an environmentalist or a hydrologist. But, her line of work gives her the chance to see bodies of water across the country up close… Behling’s company goes from state to state holding dragonboat races to raise money for local charities. The Tuscaloosa Junior League is sponsoring this event on the Black Warrior. Behling says it’s easy to see when a lake or river is healthy and when it’s not… “The cleanest water I’ve ever been in and worked a race was in Montana, where you can see all the way to the bottom. It’s so clear, you can see the rocks on the bottom of the lake.”

It’s not only homeowners who rely on water from the Black Warrior and its tributaries, but businesses as well… We’re at the Black Warrior Brewery in Tuscaloosa. Long before customers belly up to the bar, Co-owner Jason Spikes goes to work in the back…He's standing on a ten foot high platform, water hose in hand. It takes almost eight hundred gallons of water to clean his stainless steel brewing tanks and make his latest batch of beer. Spikes admits his livelihood depends on keeping Lake Tuscaloosa and the Black Warrior clean, and tonight he’s ready to put his money where his water is…

“Twenty percent of our beer sales are going to the river keeper. We also have a donation jar set up here, so everybody’s welcome to come in..”

If you want to know what a river keeper does, just go to the bar. Nelson Brooke just ordered and he has a specific flavor in mind… “Lock 17. As it’s affectionately known as the lock next to Bankhead dam, which is the northern most dam on the Black Warrior River. And, I had to try it. I hadn’t had it before…” Brooke is the Black Warrior riverkeeper. He’s head of a non-profit environmental group whose sole purpose is to protect the river from pollution and overdevelopment. Brook hopes that’s the message people take home tonight.. “We’ll hopefully they’re going to take away the connection. And also, if they didn’t know of the source of their drinking water is, which is also the source for this beer, they’ll go home knowing that.” Brooke is just one riverkeeper in Alabama. There’s one for the Tennessee River, the Coosa river, and so on. In matters of water quality, these groups are typically on one side of the issue and state regulators on the other.

Alabama’s water war with Florida and Georgia has prompted a Do-It-Yourself alternative to help people who are being hurt. APR’s MacKenzie Bates explains…

It’s 5:30 in the morning at the East Point Working Waterfront in Apalachicola, Florida.

“Get my gas, get my ice, get my few drinks and then I head out to Cat Point and find a few oysters to catch.”

Duane Topham is getting ready to hit the water. Business used to be good. At one point, Topham was catching 30 bags of fresh water oysters. Not now “Three bags. Three, sixty-pound bushels when we used to catch 30 sixty pound bushels. I’m losing every damn thing I’ve got. Ha… But Captain goes down with the ship though. Topham and other fresh water oyster farmers say they’re the victims of an ongoing war between Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

The three states have been fighting over The Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River system for 25 years. They cannot decide on how to share the water. “We got involved in it because we felt like there was a better way to manage it so we had a consistent flow of water coming down the river," says Betty Webb, she's chair of the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee Flint Stakeholders group. She along with 55 other members from the three states decided to take matters in to their own hands. “They decided to try to get this organization together of these members throughout the basin to come together and try to do a negotiated effort to figure out the best way for everyone to share the water that we have available.” The committee includes people who depend on river water, like developers, utilities, and the tourism and fishing industries. The general idea is, everyone gets a vote on how to use the water and everyone gets a veto. Webb says every need is important to all three states. And it’s also critical that all three get the water they need to keep their economies thriving.

“Alabama is one of the ones who’s really suffering because we need it to be consistent. We need to figure out how to keep it as consistent as possible.”

Basically, Webb’s complaint is that state government isn’t getting the job done. For the oyster fishermen, the water flowing into Apalachicola Bay needs to be managed. Too much river pollution or too much storm water run off can kill the oyster beds. For environmentalists, the problem goes beyond squabbles between the governors of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida… In Montgomery at the Alabama Department of Emergency Management office, concerned citizens and riverkeepers attend the triennial review of Water Quality Standards.

“We don’t want Alabama to turn in to a California where there are conflicts over water.” That’s Mitch Reid, the program director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance. “We have too much of this God-Given resource for us to squander it without having good policy. Reid is part of an organization to help keep the state’s river’s healthy and thriving. His gripe today is on the lack of water management at the state level, and he’s no fan of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management… “There are real problems with Sewage Treatment plants in Alabama. We have 284 plants in the state and only 19 have been in full compliance over the last three years. Reid considers ADEM the poster child for Alabama’s political water problems. But, not everybody sees it that way…

“We do not have regulatory authority over water quantity except to the degree that reduced flows may impact water quality.” That’s Lance LeFleur. He’s head of Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management. Environmentalists often paint the agency as the bad guy in Alabama’s water woes. LeFleur feels like he’s caught in the middle. The big complaint is a lack of money to do his job… “If we are to maintain our level of service and our workload, then we have to make up for that funding that’s been reduced by some other form and the only form available to us is our permit fees that the regulated industries pay.”

The agency has increased permit fees for industries twice. It could likely go higher for the third straight year. Officials are going to ask for an increase of 20 percent at a meeting later this year. That’s on top of a fifty percent hike two years ago. The Alabama legislature added to the drama this year with a proposal to zero out funding for LeFleur’s agency. And so, it goes on…

“We need that water.” Back in Apalachicola, oyster fisherman Horace Harris feels like he’s caught in the political tug of war… “We’re not asking for it to make our water look pretty. We’re asking for it to make our oysters produce better. So we can have a harvest so that when y’all want to sit down and watch the Florida and Georgia game and east some Apalachicola Oysters, thank me for one.” And the haggling goes on over the Chattahoochee River. Residents of Georgia drink the water from it. Alabama gets electric power from it. And for people like Horace Harris, it’s all about the seafood. “You need me to go to your gas pumps. You know what I’m saying? You need me to go out there. You need me. If I go out there and make $500, guess what? You need me to make (Expletive) dime of it.” Time appears running out this year for Harris to make his living in Florida’s oyster beds.

As we continue our road trip around to find where your drinking water comes from, there’s a dividing line around Montgomery. About sixty percent of Alabamians get their drinking water from rivers. The remaining forty percent have to drill for it… “Groundwater is underneath the land surface, so it’s sort of out of sight and out of mind.” Marlon Cook is with the Alabama Geological Survey. He leads the team that finds new sources of groundwater like this one near Selma. That job often means a lot of hiking… We’re on highway two thirty one near Montgomery. Cook leads the way to an abandoned concrete slab which used to be a bustling rest stop. Cook and his team use this old well to test water quality and quantity for surrounding well fields that serve the Montgomery area. These wells are maybe a thousand feet or so deep. If you want to see the deepest well in Alabama, you need to know someone with the right set of keys… Cook and I are in the town of Ozark, between Troy and Dothan. Their well reaches over three thousand feet before ground. When the water reaches the surface, it’s over one hundred degrees. The town is happy with their system, but Marlon Cook is worried. “I’m holding a hydrograph, which is a continuous graphical depiction of water levels over a long period of time.” A hydrograph is a white map with black squiggles. The squiggles go up and down across the page to show rainfall that fills up wells like Ozark’s. It’s called water recharge. The low sguiggles mean… “That is the dry season where we have very minimal recharge in our aquifer.” And the high squiggles? “The peak is the peak of the recharge season which normally occurs in the spring during our wet season.” This is why Cook is worried. The high squiggle for 2015’s spring time rainy season is half the size of the squiggle for 2014’s rainy season. Cook says that could mean a drought within weeks… “For the Fall, things that are dependent on plentiful rainfall…there could be a concern for the coming fall and into next spring.” The big worry is the peanut farms around Dothan. Still, the southern third of Alabama depends on well water to live.

That includes cities like Montgomery, Dothan, and Troy as well as Baldwin County. There’s just one big exception in that part of the state… The process may sound familiar by now. A series of eight turbines pumps around sixty five million gallons of water a day. It travels through sixty inch pipelines roughly four miles to water treatment plants for distribution…

The last stop on our trip around the state is a study in contrasts. Big Creek Lake is the west of Mobile. On the east is Mobile Bay. Seagulls compete for food in the marshy areas near Interstate 10 and U.S. Highway 90. People don’t drink the water out of the bay, but there are environmental concerns. At the north end of the bay, far from the noise of traffic, is the five rivers delta. The Mobile, the Spanish, the tensaw, the Apalachee and the Blakeley rivers all empty at one point into Mobile Bay. Fourteen percent of all the fresh water in the nation flows into the bay. Steven Carey teaches biology at the University of Mobile. One catch is those five rivers also deliver pollution from three states…

“Oh, north Alabama, parts of Georgia and even in North Mississippi…”

But, when it comes to the condition of Mobile Bay, we thought we’d ask a familiar face…  Penny Behling and her fleet of dragonboats made their way from the Black Warrior River and Tuscaloosa to a fundraiser here at five points delta. “This water is definitely not polluted here in Mobile Bay area. When you look down in the water, you can’t see all the way to the bottom, but you can see farther down than you can in the Black Warrior for example.” Despite the assessment, Steven Carey remains worried. He knows people who’ve lived along Mobile Bay for decades and they see the difference development has made. We’ve spent a lot of time looking at where your water comes from. APR’s Stan Ingold looks at where it goes and Mobile Bay in particular faces the consequences…

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. He 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 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 with 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.”

Work continues on extending the work done on the project 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.

If you’d like to hear more of APR’s series on the condition of Alabama’s water supply and the health of its rivers, just go to APR.ORG. I’m Pat Duggins, for Stan Ingold, Alex AuBuchon, MacKenzie Bates, and all of us at Alabama Public Radio, thanks for tuning in, and good night.