A River Runs Through it


Hunter NicholsThe Cahaba River is Birmingham’s life blood. Meet the people who care for it, and learn why you should, too.

Written by Phillip Ratliff

Photography by Hunter Nichols

 

Setting the obvious anachronism aside, life as a Jefferson County raindrop must have been rewarding 10,000 years ago. Your existence might have begun over the Gulf of Mexico, smiling from a cloud at the Iron Age sun. Migrating northward across the piney expanse, soaking in Alabama’s pristine beauty, would have been a brilliant experience. Though you might glimpse hunter-gatherers kneeling alongside stream banks to ingest your cousins, the stately mounds of the Mississippians or the all-night casinos of the Creeks would lay several millennia in your future. When it was time, you’d fall from your cloud, now a dark grey cumulonimbus, and land, not with a doink! on an asphalt parking lot, but with a soft thud! on dirt, perhaps the irony soil of a southwestern slope of Red Mountain. You’d seep into this ground, filtering through dirt and rocks before gently feeding the upper Cahaba River through underground channels.

Ten millennia later and flanked by roads and strip malls, churches and schools, the upper Cahaba River is fed in part by a very different sort of rain—stormwater runoff. It enters the Cahaba from parking lots and gutters, through pipes and gullies, stormwater gushes along surfaces and into the Cahaba, picking up sediment and heavy metals along the way. The sediment runoff brings clouds the river and thwarts the growth of aquatic plants. Runoff brings excess nutrients to the river, as well, causing algae blooms. Algae removes fish habitat and, when it dies, decomposes, decreasing the level of life-giving oxygen in the river. Biodiversity, the benchmark for healthy ecosystems and accessible drinking water, suffers.

For the past 25 years, the Cahaba River Society has fought against runoff and other threats to the river’s health. In early July of this year, I joined a small entourage of Cahaba River Society staff to canoe a seven-and-a-half mile stretch of the river and talk about their landmark anniversary. The group included CRS entomologist and river ecologist Randy Haddock, education director Gordon Black and board vice president Bob Shepard. We discussed the river’s beauty and the challenges it faces. Chief among those challenges, I learned, is the impact of development on the river that supplies close to 700,000 area residents with drinking water.

Hunter Nichols - Upper Cahaba 01The river was flowing easily the day the CRS team, and I set in at Grant’s Mill Road, thanks to a few days of heavy midsummer rainfall. The Cahaba’s loveliness was not quite on full display the day we set in—most would agree that happens each May with the blooming of the famous Cahaba lilies. But the river seemed especially verdant with the city’s concrete and asphalt surroundings. Team members offered an impromptu lesson in navigating the river. Gordon Black, a veteran canoe and kayak instructor, once led the largest rafting operation in the country. Bob Shepard, also a natural teacher, coached me on the basic strokes—draws, cross draws and sweeps—and, after I had become a more confident paddler, complex maneuvers like ferrying, eddy turns and peel outs. Most important to remaining upright in a canoe, Bob tirelessly reminded me, is heading toward downstream V’s when the current speeds up.

The Cahaba River Society’s field director, Randy Haddock, set off in his own canoe. Haddock spent considerable time that day paddling while standing, to optimize sightlines across and into the river’s muddy waters. Haddock sees what others didn’t, and he shared many of his observations throughout the four-hour trip. A hundred years ago, Haddock explained, when the Birmingham’s iron and steel industry was booming, mining companies washed their coal in the Cahaba. The mining process, he said, generated a lot of dust, coal fines, that often exploded in confined structures. Miners ran conveyor belts down into the river to wash the coal. While washing coal fines negatively impacted the Cahaba, the effects were geographically limited and overall health of the river remained pretty good, Haddock said. Runoff, on the other hand, is a much more widespread problem. For the Cahaba to reach its ultimate destination, the Alabama River, it must first wind beneath interstate overpasses and office complexes, residential developments and fast food joints. Whatever the Cahaba picks up along the way, it sends downstream. Because metro Birmingham is near the Cahaba’s headwaters, it affects virtually the entire river.

There are numerous sections of the Cahaba that run deep enough for swimming, where the current slows and paddling becomes more labored. It was at one such point that we caught a glimpse of something peering out of the water. “Gar,” Shepard said. Bob was referring to the freshwater variety of bony fish known for its comically long snout. Gars use this anatomical quirk to grab a gulp of air to supplement the oxygen it pulls out through gills. They are also armored with thick scales, a trait gars levied against Mesozoic predators that may have included pterodactyls. According to Randy Haddock, the Cahaba is home to 135 species of fish, including two other primitive varieties, bowfin and paddlefish. The river is also home to 35 species of snail, 39 species of mussel and 22 of the United States’ 40 species of turtle.

Hunter Nichols - Map Turtle 09To develop such stunning biological variety, Haddock explained, rivers need length, which provides varied habitats supportive of different forms of life. They also need time, to let random mutation and natural selection run their course. The Cahaba is so biologically diverse because, at 191 miles, running from Birmingham almost to Selma, it is long and, at 350 million years by some estimates, it is very, very old.

The result of these natural assets is biodiversity, for which Haddock argues passionately. “Our food supply depends on healthy ecosystems, rich in microbes and near relatives of our important and stunningly few crops and livestock,” Haddock said. Without wild, closely related plant species, plants and animals used for food lose the genetic resilience to ward off pests and diseases. Similarly, 25 to 49 percent of our pharmaceuticals were isolated from natural sources. Currently, Haddock said, only a limited range of plants, animals and bacteria have been evaluated for their pharmaceutical benefits. “One of the rules of successful tinkering with nature is to keep all the parts. We are far too naive to understand the value of individual species. But we throw species away. I don’t think we are smart enough to do that as readily as we do,” Haddock said.

While Randy Haddock is on the river studying its ecology, Cahaba River Society Executive Director Beth Stewart can often be found in the halls of government or the offices of designers or developers, pressing the case of the Cahaba and stressing win-win scenarios.

Stewart’s arguments complement Haddock’s appeal to science. Keeping the Cahaba healthy is in our economic best interests. Treating drinking water drawn from a healthy river is less complicated and costly. Using river-friendly design and construction methods is, three quarters of the time, as cheap as or cheaper than defaulting to traditional methods. Preserving the Cahaba is a sure way to expand the state’s recreational tourism industry. Stewart presents such arguments to real estate developers and government officials, CEOs and board chairs. The people she must persuade answer to stakeholders and political constituencies. And in quiet manner, she seems to be getting through.

Hunter Nichols - Upper Cahaba 03When Stewart joined the Cahaba River Society in 1995, it was not stormwater runoff but raw sewage overflow that posed the most immediate threat to the river. Sewage overflow was a common problem across the United States, Stewart said during a recent conversation, caused by aging infrastructure and shortsighted fiscal policies that did not account for maintenance. It is hard to imagine worse systems than Jefferson County’s in the 1990s. “Cracks, holes, leaks—the whole system was a sieve,” Stewart said. Ground water seeped into the system, raising water pressure and triggering flap gates that released raw sewage directly into area creeks and rivers. Village, Valley, Five Mile, Turkey, Shades and Prudes creeks were affected. A billion gallons of untreated sewage went into Village Creek in a year, Stewart said. Overflow spilled through manhole covers and even backed up into people’s homes.

In 1993, a group of private citizens filed a suit against Jefferson County, citing over 4,000 violations of the Clean Water Act. The Cahaba River Society intervened in the lawsuit. The EPA and the U. S. Department of Justice filed a separate suit against Jefferson County. The two lawsuits were then joined. In 1996, Jefferson County signed a consent decree estimated at up to $1.2 billion, $30 million of which was for the establishment of a protective greenway system to buffer overflowing creeks and rivers. From that $30 million, a new entity, the Freshwater Land Trust, and a new countywide system of greenways, the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System, were born.

Stewart was quick to point out that the Cahaba River Society has brought legal action only three times in its 25 year history. They prefer collaborative methods, Stewart says, shaping public policy through their work with federal, state and local government agencies, and providing developers with design and construction guidance. Collaboration with CRS led to the creation of Bass Pro Shop’s pond, an altogether clever innovation that both retains runoff and showcases Bass Pro fishing boats.

Stewart considers their work with the Shops of Grand River in Leeds one of the Cahaba River Society’s most successful collaborations. The project presented formidable challenges. At 6,500 acres winding along the river’s banks, Grand River was slated to become the largest single development in the Cahaba’s history. The project was sensitive because of its proximity to the river. The schedule was tight, and the project involved several entities—the City of Leeds, U.S. Steel, Daniel Corporation, Walter Schoel Engineering, Audubon International, Hoar Construction and sediment and erosion control expert Hunter Bruce.

But the Cahaba River Society’s back-and-forth approach yielded a solid design, which included attractive swales to capture rain running from the mall’s massive parking lots and forested areas to absorb rain directly. “We’d give design concepts, the design and construction team would try them out and tell us what worked. They sometimes would come up with innovative ideas. That’s how we like to work,” Stewart said.

Hunter Nichols - Cahaba Otter 11There is often another benefit to bringing in CRS. Low-impact design principles like those applied to Grand River often save money by requiring fewer materials and less grading and paving. “Keeping as much natural forest on the site as you can, considering the most natural way to use and take up water, clustering the development footprint, eliminating underground piping through ground swales: These are most cost-effective. It’s all about try to get that raindrop to soak into the ground as close to where it fell as possible,” Stewart said.

The gullies along the Cahaba’s banks make it clear that raindrops are not always behaving as they’re supposed to. Runoff from nearby development, which includes the expansive parking lots of a mega church and an auto mart, has cut deep gashes into the bank. Clear cutting by some homeowners, probably to enhance their view of the river, contributes to bank erosion. Bob Shepard discovered another concern, a neon green dye seeping into the main river from a feeder stream. Haddock offered a plausible explanation for the dye, that it likely originated in a nearby water treatment plant. Dyes such as these control algae growth by blocking sunlight, Haddock explained.

Nevertheless, the Cahaba teemed with life the day of our excursion. A grassy aquatic plant known as river willow was abundant in the Cahaba’s shallow areas. Turtles as big around as Frisbees sunned themselves on logs, quietly slipping into the water as we approached. For a brief leg of the journey, a heron, acting almost like a guide, flew about 50 yards ahead of the canoes.

As the CRS team gobbled down a bankside lunch atop a limestone shelf, soldier ants surrounded the crumbs. I swatted as the team told stories of encounters with snakes, including one about a snake that jumped into Beth Stewart’s canoe during a previous outing. It’s obvious the group enjoys each other as much as they like getting out on the river.

After we had reached the canoe trip’s end, Randy Haddock, Bob Shepard and Gordon Black set their canoes along the shore and grabbed a fine net, some 10 feet across, three feet high and mounted to two wooden posts. Bob and Gordon each held a post and stretched the net across an expanse of moving stream. Randy, upstream, lifted rocks to release fish and insects hiding beneath them. The three-man team used this method to net several minnows, as well as the gruesomely primitive looking larval form of the dobsonfly, the hellgrammite. Randy placed a hellgrammite on his index finger and let it dangle from its mandibles, and told a story of a friend who gets great laughs wearing hellgrammites on each ear like earrings.

Hunter Nichols - Eye to Eye 13As Bob, Gordon and Randy gathered samples, another species could be seen flocking to the river. People arrived in jeeps and SUVs and lofted into the river’s deeper sections via a well-placed rope swing. Downstream from the CRS team, a group of teenagers swam. From the bank, a young woman stared at the current, apparently lost in the flowing water’s meditative effects. People clearly love the Cahaba, not because they know it is where their drinking water comes from, or that it houses the secrets of a medical breakthrough that might benefit cancer patients a hundred years from now, but because it’s fun and it’s beautiful. The white water rushing over limestone, the Cahaba lilies, the map turtles and raccoons, even the lowly hellgrammite inspire awe. Haddock would call this the aesthetic argument for conservation. We should protect the Cahaba, the argument suggests, for the same reason we preserve Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

To prove that stargazing can be just as lovely from a canoe in Alabama, the Cahaba River Society organizes regular moonlight canoe excursions. On September 29, CRS will host its annual Fry Down competition at Trussville Springs. Since 1996, more than 27,000 students and teachers have spent the day on the Cahaba participating in stream walks. The goal of such encounters, Beth Stewart said, is to let the Cahaba speak for itself.

Building Cahaba advocates one recreational encounter at a time will take on new significance when CRS enacts the Cahaba Blueway system. It is an ambitious plan, integrating natural and historic assets into a seamless, tourist-friendly package. The Cahaba Blueway coordinates canoe launches and landings all along the river’s upper, middle and lower points. Signage and integrated marketing, trails leading to shopping, dining and lodging, river-friendly parking, even an app that announces water levels, are all part of CRS’s vision. In July, thanks in part to Alabama Power funding, CRS unveiled a Blueway model site near Highway 78 in Leeds, the Moon River canoe launch. Additional Blueway sites, coordinated with the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System, are in development.

Stewart acknowledged that bringing more people to the river presents the risk that, in an effort to promote the river, further damage is done. But it is a calculated risk, one that CRS is ready to take. We need this water, Stewart argued, to be clean, accessible and relatively inexpensive to treat and send to people’s taps.

Hunter Nichols - Cahaba LiliesIt isn’t always an easy task, helping people see that what they do now affects people ten years from now, that what they put into the water upstream affects those downstream. “If every person’s home, every person’s business had little stickers, on the water faucets, the showers, the toilets that said ‘Your River Starts Here,’ it might help us make that connection. Water unites all these different processes, in our lives, in the world,” Stewart said.

“The way fresh water comes to us is through rain—that’s our gift of fresh water. The way we manage that rain determines the healthfulness of the water we have. Our bodies are 60 percent water, our brains, 70 percent water. If you are on the Birmingham Water Works Board system drinking the Cahaba water coming out of your tap, when you pick up your kids or grandkids and put them in bed, most of what you’re holding in your arms is the Cahaba River.”

I convinced Catherine to take off work for a few days and go canoeing and camping with me. On the first morning we were filming and photographing in the lilies and once the light became a little too harsh for that I knew it was time to pop the question. I told her to pose on a rock in the middle of the lilies for a timed photo. I got down on my knee and acted like I was examining a unique snail species. Like a deer in headlights I then pulled out the ring and asked her to marry me. At this point she looked like a driver about to hit a deer but to my relief she said yes. We spent the next two days relaxing on the river and soaking in the decision and path our lives would take from there.”

I convinced Catherine to take off work for a few days and go canoeing and camping with me. On the first morning we were filming and photographing in the lilies and once the light became a little too harsh for that I knew it was time to pop the question. I told her to pose on a rock in the middle of the lilies for a timed photo. I got down on my knee and acted like I was examining a unique snail species. Like a deer in headlights I then pulled out the ring and asked her to marry me. At this point she looked like a driver about to hit a deer but to my relief she said yes. We spent the next two days relaxing on the river and soaking in the decision and path our lives would take from there.”

 The Cahaba river turns out to be a touching place for a wedding proposal. Photographer Hunter Nichols proposed to Catherine Porter on April 29th, 2012. “I always knew I wanted to propose to her in the Cahaba Lilies. My parents got engaged on the banks of the Cahaba River near Irondale. The Cahaba has played a special part in my family’s life and I wanted to continue that tradition. Being the creative type I also had to step it up a notch so with the great help of Southeastern Jewelers I designed a ring to resemble the Cahaba Lily.

The Cahaba river turns out to be a touching place for a wedding proposal. Photographer Hunter Nichols proposed to Catherine Porter on April 29th, 2012. “I always knew I wanted to propose to her in the Cahaba Lilies. My parents got engaged on the banks of the Cahaba River near Irondale. The Cahaba has played a special part in my family’s life and I wanted to continue that tradition. Being the creative type I also had to step it up a notch so with the great help of Southeastern Jewelers I designed a ring to resemble the Cahaba Lily.

One Response to “A River Runs Through it”

  1. Ken Smith says:

    Great article until the end. Love the self gratuitous way you showed of your ring.

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