Protecting Alabama’s Water Quality

Photo © Robert Llewellyn

Threats to Alabama’s waters

Teeming with plants and wildlife, Alabama’s 132,000 miles of streams and rivers are the most diverse in the country. However, Alabama is at the top of the list for the number of species at risk for extinction–an indicator of the declining condition of the state's rivers and streams–and ranks among the lowest states on per capita spending for environmental protection.

Many factors threaten to hasten the deterioration of water quality in Alabama’s rivers and streams, including suburban sprawl, stormwater pollution, and growing water consumption. A lack of coordination among the many agencies responsible for water protection, and dwindling funds from the state legislature, often results in lax enforcement of rules and regulations.

Holding wastewater treatment plants accountable

Given that the majority of Alabama’s municipal wastewater treatment facilities have been in violation of their permits in the last three years, SELC has launched a statewide initiative to address this source of chronic pollution.

Starting with the Tull C. Allen Wastewater Treatment Plant in Oxford, SELC is stepping in to keep these plants from polluting Alabama’s waterways.  For twenty-five years, the Oxford plant violated its Clean Water Act permit. More recently, it illegally discharged polluted wastewater with high amounts of E. coli into Choccolocco Creek, a popular tubing and fishing site.

After almost three years in federal and state courts, SELC reached a settlement on behalf of Coosa Riverkeeper requiring the water utility to upgrade its infrastructure and operations to cure its Clean Water Act violations. In an era of scarce state resources and lax enforcement, this settlement will help to empower citizen plaintiffs and boost our wastewater work in Alabama. 

Coosa River dam relicensing

Since 2013, SELC, Alabama Rivers Alliance and American Rivers have been challenging a 30-year license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to Alabama Power for operation of seven hydroelectric dams spanning 275 miles on the Coosa River. 

This river was once among the most biodiverse rivers in the world; however, the construction of these dams resulted in one of the most massive extinction events in the 20th century. The river continues to support a number of fish, mussel and snail species, but many of them are teetering on the brink of extinction. 

SELC proved to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit in 2018 that FERC violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Federal Power Act in issuing the license without adequate environmental studies, without sufficient protections for threatened and endangered aquatic species and their habitat, and without requiring Alabama Power to maintain minimum dissolved oxygen levels in the river system for water quality. 

FERC is currently re-doing its studies in order to address the Court’s concerns.   

Safeguards for Birmingham’s drinking water

SELC is working to secure permanent protections for thousands of acres of undeveloped land held by the Birmingham Water Works Board around the Little Cahaba River, the Cahaba River, and Lake Purdy.

This land, which acts as an important natural buffer that filters stormwater runoff, is required to be permanently protected through conservation easements. Yet the Board has not recorded these easements.

SELC, Cahaba River Society, and Cahaba Riverkeeper are urging the Board to refrain from selling any of this conservation land and to formally record conservation easements with permanent protections for the land around the Cahaba River in order to better protect Birmingham’s primary drinking water source.