The Cahaba River: Preserve and Restore


HELENA—A bridge rumbles with cars passing from city to countryside. People are trying to get home after a day’s work, before the sun goes down. A larger rumble vibrates from underneath the cars. That vibration is a river. Without the help of the people driving over it, the river could be in trouble.

By Alaina Boukedes

Contributing Writer

The Cahaba River is the largest free-flowing river in Alabama, running at about 200 miles from start to finish. “Free flowing” refers to the lack of dams that would regulate the water’s depth. The river relies on rainwater, and with some of the most diverse biological inhabitants in Alabama, the Cahaba needs a human helping hand.

“Everything you do impacts somewhere,” David Butler said.

Butler is the owner of Canoe the Cahaba, an establishment that rents canoes to residents. Butler takes guided tours down the Cahaba to teach his patrons about the river. Originally from Kentucky, Butler is not a stranger to bodies of water, having grown up near rivers all of this life.

“I just like being around the river,” Butler said.

In 1989, the structure that turned into Canoe the Cahaba was a water sports shop. In 2004 the owners asked Butler to take over the business, turning the old wooden building into a recreation spot. Butler plans to turn his building into a resource center for learning about the Cahaba and its wildlife.

“Everywhere on the river is affected by what other people want,” Butler said.

The rise of pollution comes with the rise in popularity of drifting down the Cahaba in floats and building riverfront housing. Floats can promote customers bringing unwanted items on the river, like beer cans and bottles. When developments start building, dirt and gravel can fall into the river, tainting the water.

“The river would look like tomato soup or chocolate milk,” Tricia Sheets said.

Sheets is the director of administration for the Cahaba River Society, which works to conserve the Cahaba waterway. Founded in 1989, the society uses policy and education as tools to inform residents of Alabama about how change can happen, and how change needs to happen.

“You can visually observe the river’s decline,” Sheets said.

To fight that decline, the society has implemented educational programs for residents of the Birmingham area. CLEAN, Children Linking with the Environment Across the Nation, is a platform that brings children directly to the river. Supplying an outdoor classroom, CLEAN educates children about the Cahaba.

“By us keeping and restoring habitat, we are helping,” Sarah Clardy said.

Clardy is the refuge manager of the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary that manages some of the nation’s unique wildlife. The refuge defends 13 species that make their home in the Cahaba and nowhere else, including the frecklebelly madtom.

Spanning Alabama, resources and organizations like the Cahaba River Society, the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge and trips at Canoe the Cahaba are starting a dialogue about protecting our waterways. With continued perseverance, the Cahaba will continue to be one of Alabama’s treasures.

“We can’t do it ourselves,” Clardy said.