Protecting the Cahaba

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 3, 2002

Winding its way through the heart of Alabama, the Cahaba River supports a variety of wildlife, offers a host of recreational activities and provides drinking water for much of the state.

While its waters are relatively calm, conflict surrounding land use and heightened concern for the river’s health have created an underlying turbulence in the Cahaba River basin.

The quaint sound of water rushing over rock is dampened by the buzz and thunder of development and the voices of those concerned about the river’s future.

The first of four scheduled public meetings was held Nov. 20 to discuss a new study to look at the future of the Cahaba.

The meeting, held at Eastminister Presbyterian Church in Trussville, was open to the public.

The study will focus on the upper Cahaba watershed, an area of land drained by the river that stretches across parts of Jefferson, St. Clair and Shelby counties.

The Cahaba River has flowed southwest into the Alabama River for thousands of years, but it has been recent times that have put its waters and its inhabitants in the most danger.

As Metropolitan Birmingham pushes farther south and Shelby County’s growth continues to increase at break-neck speed, the Cahaba lies in the path &045; and increasingly the wake &045; of a tremendous amount of development.

&uot;Local governments now are competing for development and the tax base created by development,&uot; said Tom Maxwell of the Regional Planning Commission. &uot;A lot of times that comes at the cost of natural resources.&uot;

Runoff from construction, pesticides, excess flow, chemicals and metals all affect water quality and put a strain on the river habitat which is home to more fish species than any other river its size in North America.

&uot;Sediment is a big problem in the Cahaba,&uot; Maxwell said. &uot;With development you see erosion increase dramatically so you get excess sediment.&uot;

Realizing a need to balance growth and conservation, officials from the watershed area converged to form the Upper Cahaba Watershed Consortium, a collection of mayors and county commissioners who serve the local governments.

The mayors of Indian Springs, Pelham, Helena and Alabaster were invited to participate as members of the Consortium.

Led by the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, the Consortium selected a Technical Committee, made up of various local professionals and organizations. The Cahaba River Society is one of the organizations which will serve on the Technical Committee.

Beth Stewart, executive director of the Cahaba River Society, said the study should incorporate the &uot;best watershed science available.&uot;

Stewart also said public involvement in the process is critcal to ensure the best outcome for the Cahaba.

&uot;The Society really does believe this process can rescue the Cahaba,&uot; she said. &uot;We feel broad public involvement can ensure that we can restore the Cahaba’s water quality as the communities continue to grow.&uot;

The first phase of the Upper Cahaba Watershed Plan is an 18-month study to determine guidelines for future development and protection of the river environment.

&uot;This is a uniform planning effort to protect the Cahaba River,&uot; Maxwell said.

The total project to date is estimated to cost $275,000.

Shelby County has contributed $15,000; the city of Pelham, $3,000; and the city of Hoover, $40,000.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Region IV) is contributing to the cost of the project as well.

The next public meeting for the Upper Cahaba Watershed Study is scheduled for

February. No time or date has been set.

Public meetings for the Upper Cahaba Watershed Study are listed on the Internet at

Check future issues of the Shelby County Reporter for more details on the Cahaba River and the Upper Cahaba Watershed Study