Black Warrior River faces environmental threats

The Black Warrior Riverkeeper and other organizations are working to protect the 300-mile river, which courses through the heart of Tuscaloosa.

By Nick Privitera
Contributing Writer

The slowly flowing water ripples against the hull of Nelson Brooke’s boat on a sunny October morning as he and scientists Natasha Dimova and Daniel Martin venture upriver. They are investigating pollution at a mining dump site on the banks of the Black Warrior River. The water at the site is highly acidic, and thick red residue covers the rocks and soil on the bank, which spreads to the water wherever they meet.

The environmental hazards they find come as no surprise to Brooke, who has seen a number of threats to the river in his career of environmental activism with Black Warrior Riverkeeper. With a river flowing 300 miles across the landscape of Alabama, and a watershed covering over 6,000 square miles, Brooke is always busy. Being on the water makes a visible difference, but it is the other aspects of his job that can make lasting change for the Black Warrior.

“It gets back to this political conundrum of getting our elected officials to understand that it is critically important to protect our natural resources, and to properly resource our state agency, and to encourage them to have teeth, and encourage our attorney general’s office to do the same and to go after environmental violators so that we can have clean natural resources,” Brooke said.

The Black Warrior and its reservoirs are a major source of drinking water, hydroelectric power and a place of recreation for Alabamians. Additionally, the river is home to a number of freshwater species, some of which are endangered.

The health of the Black Warrior remains a complex issue with facets touching every latitude in the sociopolitical spheres of Alabama. Since the implementation of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the state of the river has improved due to regulation. However, it still faces enforcement issues regarding dumping permits and non-point sources of pollution such as sedimentation and runoff.

According to Pat O’Neil with the Geological Survey of Alabama, the dumping capacity of the Black Warrior is maxed out. When wastewater plants or other industries want to dump into the river, they must acquire a permit that allows them that privilege. Permits are given based on a formula that calculates the ability of the river to dilute the waste. Currently, the river is flowing at max capacity, which means there should be no more dumping of waste.

However, this rate only accounts for approved dumping. Everyday illegal dumping and spills occur, such as untreated sewage from water facilities or dumping from power plants exceeding the permitted amount. With so many different sources of pollution, it can be hard to keep track of how much really goes into the river.

“We went out and we looked at all the different treatment facilities in the watershed, and we found that there is at least 85 of them permitted to treat sewage and discharge it back into the river and its tributaries,” Brooke said. “We were seeing about a 40 percent noncompliance rate.”

Millions of gallons of water flows into the river from these plants every day. Until a closer inspection is done, there is no way of knowing how much untreated sewage and pollution is spilling into the Black Warrior, or for how long it has been happening.

Brooke and other concerned citizens have been calling for increased regulation, but they remain a long way from seeing any real change.

According to Brooke, one of the first steps to initiate change for a healthier river system is to increase awareness of the pollution and create a societal shift in attitude about what is acceptable. When that happens, protection of the environment may come to fruition.

“What people don’t realize when they pollute is that they are not only hurting the environment, they are also hurting themselves,” Martin said.

Government protection of the environment is key to ensuring the wellbeing of the ecosystem in the Black Warrior. Aquatic biologist Stuart McGregor points to Bankhead National Forest on the Sipsey Fork as an example of how to properly manage natural resources. Rare species of mussels live in that portion of the Sipsey Fork, but they have not been seen in other areas for many years. McGregor attributes this mussel haven to the protective measures involving the forest. Because regulations are enforced, these mussels did not experience the harsher environment that would eradicate them.

What people like McGregor and Brooke hope to see in the future is the wide spread adoption of similar policies across the state. If the state agencies were to create stricter rules and increase enforcement, it would mean there is less pollution entering the watershed that threatens not only the landscape and ecosystems, but the residents of Alabama as well.