An overhead shot of Little River. The water is shallow, and many rocks and small rapids can be seen in the river. Dense forests are on either side.

Lifting all boats

Grant brings Alabama water protectors closer together

by Sydney Cromwell

At the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, there’s a team of staff, volunteers and interns for projects like litter cleanups and bacteria testing. On the Choctawhatchee River, on the other hand, Riverkeeper Michael Mullen says he usually works as a “lone ranger.”

The ten organizations that make up Waterkeepers Alabama don’t always have the same resources available for their water-quality work. 

“Some of us are a one-person staff and some of us are 25-member staffs,” Cahaba Riverkeeper Executive Director Myra Crawford said.

This year’s new Ten Rivers Project, Crawford said, will make it easier for the waterkeepers to share their knowledge and assets for a mutual goal: keeping rivers, lakes, creeks, bays and other waterways safe and clean across Alabama.

“We can all benefit from learning and changing and adapting. And so that’s what a big part of this is,” Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke said.

The Ten Rivers Project is funded by a $65,000 grant from the Mosaic foundation, which in March 2022 awarded $6.4 million in grants to projects focusing on clean air and water and environmental justice across the country.

All of the members of Waterkeepers Alabama, a collaborative nonprofit group launched in 2018, will participate in the Ten Rivers Project: Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Cahaba Riverkeeper, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper, Coosa Riverkeeper, Coosa River Basin Initiative / Upper Coosa Riverkeeper, Hurricane Creekkeeper, Little River Waterkeeper, Mobile Baykeeper and Tennessee Riverkeeper.

“There’s a bunch of different niches out here, but when you put it all together the sum is greater than its parts.

Michael Mullen, Choctawhatchee Riverkeepeer

Crawford said the project has its roots in a similar but smaller version that had also been funded by a $60,000 Mosaic grant in 2021. The Three Rivers Project was a collaboration between the Cahaba, Coosa and Black Warrior riverkeepers, and Crawford said they found it so beneficial that they wanted to expand to all of Alabama’s waterkeepers.

Since getting their grant funding this spring, the Ten Rivers organizations have already begun sharing some of their resources, such as informational materials in English and Spanish about water testing and the Swim Guide program, which tracks E. coli levels in popular swimming spots from May to September. Brooke said many of these materials were originally created by the Coosa Riverkeeper staff, and their fish advisory signs are now a template for the rest of the state.

“They’ve been real pivotal in putting together materials that other waterkeepers can piggyback on,” Brooke said.

In a small white boat, a woman centered in the frame is taking a selfie. She is driving the boat. Two men are in the front seats of the boat, behind her. The boat is on a wide, smooth river and an industrial building can be seen in the background near the riverbank.
(L to R) Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke, Coosa Riverkeeper Justinn Overton and Cahaba Riverkeeper David Butler on a patrol boat during the Three Rivers Project. Photo courtesy of Justinn Overton.

New fishing advisory signs have been posted at boat ramps around the state to let people know whether it is safe to eat fish caught in a particular body of water. Enabling people to make informed decisions about how to use their nearby water resources is important, Crawford said.

Not all of the waterkeepers have the money or the manpower to create and install these types of signs on their own, but the Ten Rivers Project is enabling them to lean on the expertise of their neighbors.

Little River Waterkeeper Angie Shugart said she and her husband, Bill, run one of the smaller waterkeepers in the state, and she is looking forward to applying the knowledge they get from other keepers to their own work. Michael Mullen, for instance, has experience in dealing with stormwater and sediment runoff from construction, which is a growing problem on the Little River, Shugart said.

“There’s a bunch of different niches out here, but when you put it all together the sum is greater than its parts,” Mullen said.

The waterkeepers are also creating an inventory of the water testing methods that the various keeper organizations use, in order to compare their effectiveness in detecting bacteria levels. 

“We want to make sure we have the best handle on all the data and the science that’s out there,” Brooke said.

Two men at the side of a creek, facing right. They are holding a water testing kit.
Water testing as part of the Three Rivers Project. Photo courtesy of Justinn Overton.

Some of the waterkeepers use a less-sensitive water testing system because it requires less lab equipment. Manpower and time also influence how much testing the smaller waterkeepers can do.

“We would love for everybody to know everything about their water, but we barely have the resources to do what we do,” Crawford said.

While the waterkeepers share an overarching goal of water conservation and cleanliness, protecting that water doesn’t look the same everywhere.

“Every watershed is different, with different pollution issues and different local issues,” Brooke said.

On the Choctawhatchee, Mullen said, sediment runoff from building development is a major source of pollution. On the Little River, Shugart said keeping the river clean is critical to the area’s tourism and summer camps. Mining sites are major pollution points for the Black Warrior River, Crawford said.

Crawford said coal ash from coal-fired power plants seeps into waters across the state, endangering both wildlife and human drinking water sources with mercury and arsenic. Coal ash dump sites bring particular safety worries for the waterkeepers near them, like the Mobile Baykeeper and the Black Warrior and Coosa riverkeepers.

To learn about each other’s priorities, Crawford said each of the waterkeepers will host shared patrols of their rivers, creeks and bays. These patrols include boating or walking the banks of each water system, water testing and visiting major pollution sites. Crawford said this is one of the most valuable parts of the project.

“It keeps us talking together, it has us meet regularly,” she said.

Sediment runoff from a construction site that will wash into the stormwater sewers and eventually reach the Choctawhatchee River. Photo courtesy of Michael Mullen.

The waterkeepers are also looking toward the future, in several different avenues. The Ten Rivers Project includes efforts to recruit interns from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the state. Minorities are often underrepresented in environmental conservation, Crawford said, despite bearing the brunt of water pollution and other environmental damages. 

Making active efforts to bring underrepresented groups into the waterkeepers’ work is the “prudent and right thing to do,” she said.

“You go to any environmental movement, and even until recently any scientific group, and most of the participants are white, and there seem to be very few people of color in the environmental movement,” Crawford said. When it comes to the effects of climate change, “the people who are going to be hurt first and worst are people of color, people who live in marginal communities close to rivers, close to seashores.”

The Black Warrior, Cahaba and Coosa riverkeepers visited four HBCUs — Miles College, Stillman College, Talladega College and Tuskegee College — to give classroom presentations and participate in career and volunteer fairs, as part of the Three Rivers Project. 

The Cahaba Riverkeeper has set up a relationship with Miles College to host student interns, Crawford said. The first of these interns was Jenesis Morgan, who did a senior research project on the Cahaba last fall. Crawford said Morgan will return as a Swim Guide intern this summer.

Part of the Ten Rivers Project funding will go toward an app, currently in beta testing, that will collect and store details of sewage spills that are reported to ADEM. Crawford said the app will help the waterkeepers spot problem companies and repeat offenders, as well as form a better idea of exactly how much sewage is making its way into local waterways.

“We would love for everybody to know everything about their water, but we barely have the resources to do what we do.”

Myra Crawford, Cahaba Riverkeeper

One of the other forward-looking aspects of the project is a water resource inventory of two of the waterkeepers’ regions. Crawford said Alabama doesn’t have a plan for water management — including how water would be divided between agricultural, industrial and public use — in the event of a severe drought or other crisis. 

“There’s no method for saying who gets what, when, why. What happens when there’s a drought?” she said. “… Ostensibly the individual, the people, could be at the end of the line.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the vast majority of freshwater supply in the United States goes toward electricity generation, agriculture and other industries. Only about 12 percent is used by the general public.

The water resource inventory will look at certain basins and aquifers, including Birmingham drinking-water sources, to see how they are used for water supply and how they are replenished.

Waterkeepers Alabama will make this resource inventory available to the public once it is complete, but Crawford said she doesn’t expect the state to adopt any water-use plan based on their findings.

“It’s really just for knowledge. There’s not much we can do at this point,” she said.

The waterkeepers and the Alabama Rivers Alliance have tried to get an official water-use plan adopted for several years, unsuccessfully.

“Anybody who wants to create more business, build this state, sell more, do more, they’re not interested in anything that’s going to protect the climate and the people,” Crawford said.

After the Ten Rivers Project ends in February 2023, the work of the various waterkeepers will probably continue to look as different as Alabama’s waterways themselves. But Crawford hopes this collaboration will push all of the organizations further in their goal of protecting water sources and the people who use them.

“We hope that we will have built a great deal more of starter relationships, a better sense of trust, that we understand what each other is doing more,” she said. “The Waterkeepers Alabama is just a very young organization, and it takes usually five or six years for a new nonprofit to get their feet under them, to really begin to sort through all of the challenges and opportunities and find their voice, and we are on the cusp of that.”

Mullen said he would like to see Waterkeepers Alabama go even further, expanding its lobbying efforts alongside its other water quality work.

“The movement in Alabama is strong. I think for a red state we’re doing some, quite frankly, amazing things that some other states are not having as much success,” Mullen said. “… It’s almost phenomenal how well our keepers here have worked together.”

Main article image of Little River courtesy of Thomson200, Wikimedia Commons.

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