Preserving the Mobile Bay Estuary Through Headwater Protection

Healthy waters… They’re vitally important to Alabama’s identity and economy. High-quality streams and wetlands protected by well-managed forests provide clean water,  recreational opportunities, and habitats for fish and wildlife.

 Protecting high-quality waters now can reduce future needs for costly habitat restoration. 

Over the past few decades, millions of dollars have been spent improving ecological conditions in the impaired streams and rivers of Alabama. While we have achieved some success, miles of streams remain degraded and new impairments continue to be identified. 

The Alabama Forest Resources Center, a statewide working forest land trust, was created in 1986 by concerned landowners, foresters, and conservationists to enhance, promote, and preserve Alabama’s forests for future generations. In 2018, The Center joined forces with the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program and the Healthy Watersheds Consortium to strategically protect headwater habitat parcels in the Mobile-Tombigbee and Alabama river basins.

Headwaters are the places where streams begin.. They are vitally important for providing clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, and flood control downstream where they’re critical to the health of estuarine resources. By strategically identifying and recruiting landowners to conserve their habitat-rich headwater properties, we hope to sustain the rich species diversity and hydrologic and biological processes underlying our economy, culture, and quality of life.

The hope is to increase the pace of conservation of the State’s remaining healthy headwater habitat parcels. One way of accomplishing this, which has proven highly successful across the country, is through the use of conservation easements.

Special Thanks

Discoverying Alabama, additional footage
Kari Servold, Geospatial analysis and map production
Dan Dumont and Mark Bailey, project guidance, additional footage, film edits
Tom Herder, script edits and narration
Roberta Swann, film direction and executive production
 

Video Produced by Ben Brenner for Cobia Digital

Mon Louis Island Tip Restoration

The tip of Mon Louis Island at the mouth of Fowl River is a habitat-rich eight-acre peninsula which has receded to a point of incredible vulnerability to storms, with only a berm of common reed holding the scarped shoreline in place and only 65 feet between the Bay shore and a lee-side embayment used by commercial boats. MBNEP installed a 1500-foot rock revetment along the shoreline’s 1995 footprint, then pumped sandy material from an offshore disposal site inside the rock, sculpted a tidal creek with excavators, and planted with native vegetation to create more than four new acres of productive salt marsh and fishery habitat.

The projects rock revetment not only protects the existing and created wetlands, it also protects upstream interests, including the Pelican Reef restaurant and marina and the Fowl River residential community from the impacts expected had the island’s northern tip been decimated by the effects of storm surge, winds, and waves leaving a much broader Bayfront river mouth. 

Protecting Alabama's Waters - Communities Partnering with the U.S. EPA's Nonpoint Source Management Program

Funding Provided by The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and The Alabama Department of Environmental Management. 

Alabama is endowed with a natural abundance of beautiful flowing waters. Our creeks, rivers, and bays not only serve as an engine driving our state’s economy, they are critical to the preservation of the mosaic of ecosystems essential for the diversity and health of our fishery and wildlife populations.

With the highest species diversity of any state east of the Mississippi, Alabama leads the country in a number of freshwater aquatic species. With the nation’s second largest intact river delta system, it’s no wonder the Mobile-Tensaw Delta has become known as “America’s Amazon.”

To protect these state-wide resources now and into the future, proper management of our waters is key. 

According to the U.S. EPA, management strategies should target drainage areas that discharge into receiving waters. The enormous watershed discharging into Mobile Bay covers most of Alabama and comprises many smaller sub-watersheds scalable for developing watershed management plans. These plans, for areas draining to common receiving waters for which the plans are generally named, ensure restoration efforts are based in science, prioritize areas where best management practices can be implemented to improve water quality, and fit into an overall management program independent of geopolitical boundaries which might limit actions or responses.  

As watershed management planning is implemented across the state, The Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, a non-regulatory place-based program of  the EPA, has provided a leading example of the benefits of this approach in managing water resources.

Christian Miller - Watershed Coodinator, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program: Watershed management plans are an EPA proscribed process for bringing stakeholders within a watershed together, everything from local citizens, homeowners, business owners, municipal, state, federal agencies... to get an accurate pictures of what’s going on inside that watershed. It’s a scientific approach to identifying problems, and identifying solutions to remedy those issues within that given watershed. =

A WMP evaluates land use, topography, soil types, and stormwater hydrology; it takes over a year to develop; requires extensive community engagement, and focuses on teaching communities about the land that impacts their waters. It identifies problems that threaten water quality and recommends prioritized solutions to those problems. It even identifies potential funding sources to pay for those solutions. 

Data derived from these plans can supplement ongoing monitoring by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management by identifying previously unrecognized impairments. If the water’s quality fails to meet standards for its designated use classification, ADEM will place it on the 303(d) list of impaired waters. 

Jennifer Haslbaurer, P.E. - "Chief, Standards & Planning Section, Alabama Department of Environmental Management: The 303(D) list is a list of waters that do not fully support their designated uses based on the data and information for that waterbody…. For the 2020 303(d) list that we’re taking a look at right now, we’re taking a look at 6 years worth of data so that includes data from 2013 through 2018 and based on that data and information we’ll determine what water bodies are impaired and will go on the 303(d) list."

Once a water body is added to the 303(d) list, the next step in the process is to develop Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDLs, where ADEM prescribes pollutant reductions necessary for the water body to meet its designated use standard. Recommendations from the WMP target those impairments with prioritized actions, which provide the groundwork for municipalities  and non-profits to apply for grants from a range of sources including ADEM’s 319 Nonpoint Source Pollution Program.

Scott Hughes - Chief, Field Operations Division, Alabama Department of Environmental Management: "A lot of people think that point source discharges, or discharges that come from pipe, are the main causes of water quality impairments, and that’s not true, those discharges are regulated through permits and things like that, so those discharges are not the main driver of water quality impairments. The main driver of water quality impairments is what we call nonpoint source discharge, and that’s when Rainwater flows across the land, parking lots and things like that and it picks up pollutants as it’s traveling across the land. And that stormwater is not treated, it typically flows right into a stormwater conveyance system and then discharges directly into a local creek or stream."

The Nonpoint source program is a non-regulatory program, where ADEM tries to work with local stakeholders and put projects on the ground that will improve water quality in those local watersheds. (add bit about 319)

In South Alabama, Baldwin County’s Joe’s Branch in the D’Olive Creek watershed provides an instructive example of how a WMP and seed money from ADEM 319 can bring together a range of stakeholders to address stormwater issues. 

In 2006, community leaders approached The Mobile Bay National Estuary Program about excessive sedimentation in Lake Forest Lake. With many blaming the problem on a large construction project nearby, a watershed management plan for the D’Olive Creek, Tiawassee Creek, and Joe’s Branch sub-watersheds was initiated.  While mismanaged construction sites often contribute to sediment entering nearby waterways, the completed plan revealed the primary source was erosion throughout the intricate network of streams and creeks. Increased volumes and velocities of stormwater runoff triggered by heavy rains on developed surfaces and rushing over steep terrain through highly erodible soils, incised and collapsed streambanks, deepened streambeds, and carried the enormous loads of sediments downstream. 

The greatest sediment source was an ephemeral unnamed tributary of Joe’s Branch. The erosion was so severe, it threatened US Highway 31 and residences in an adjacent neighborhood.

Scott Hughes: "We recently did a… stream restoration project here at JOes’branch in Baldwin County.  It was a tremendous project where there was a stream that was deeply incised and eroding, it as transporting a lot of sediment out into the bay causing sediment impacts into the bay and we went in and worked with a lot of different stakeholders, ALDOT, the local municipalities, Spanish Fort, the City of Daphne, Mobile Bay NEP, just a whole host of stakeholders that worked on that project. ADEM provided kinda the seed money for that project, but then these other stakeholders brought resources and matching funds to the table and it really was a tremendously successful project. "

With sediment pollution delivered from one city to impact another, collaboration was critical.   Funding was used to stabilize the tributary with a step-pool stormwater conveyance system designed to increase infiltration, reduce the speed and energy of stormwater runoff, and curtail sediment delivery, while preserving ecological function. 

The project won the 2015 Gulf Guardian Award for Partnerships, and set in motion a series of other priority activities all across the watershed. 

Marlon Cook - Geologic Survey of Alabama, Retired, Cook Hydrogeology, LLC.: "D’Olive is actually a wonderful cooperation. The D’olive creek working group met years ago. And had an interest in doing restoration because of the amount of construction in the watershed. We monitored for two years prior to any restoration efforts, so we had a good idea of what pre-restoration conditions were.  So then we came in after the restoration was complete and did our monitoring again to determine what the effectiveness was of the restorations. So we have seen more than a 90% decrease in Joe’s Branch. Joes Branch actually had the highest sediment load of any watershed I had ever measured in my career it was actually over a 100,000 per square mile per year so that has been reduced by over 90 percent. "

Watershed management planning across the state provides an avenue for identifying sources and causes of impairments to waterbodies, identifying critical areas and implementing targeted, scientific solutions, and improving their water quality with funding and support from the EPA through ADEM’s 319 Nonpoint Source Pollution Program. As local municipalities, nonprofits, and agencies join forces and resources to create and implement watershed management plans, we can create a clean water future for generations to come.



 

Litter - An Increasing Problem

 

The trash littering stream banks and floating down waterways is a result of society becoming increasingly “disposable.” Snack food wrappers; Styrofoam cups and fast food containers; plastic bottles, lids, and straws; paper and plastic bags; and cigarette and cigar butts are frequently discarded on concrete or asphalt surfaces. When it rains, these items are carried into storm drains, pipes, and culverts by stormwater runoff, then out, completely unfiltered, into creeks, rivers, and bays.

With over half of the people in the United States living in coastal counties, conversion of the natural landscape to hard, developed surfaces has resulted in an increase in stormwater runoff carrying more nonpoint source pollution, including trash, to the waters that attracted us here.

Many cities have created regulations to stop littering, but enforcing them is, at best, difficult. Individual acts of littering are widespread and without a pattern, making enforcement a huge challenge. Budgets and staffing of responsible agencies are frequently not adequate to pursue cases related to littering and dumping or to follow up on citizen reports.

Why Is There a Pond in My Backyard - Maintenance Requirements for Detention & Retention Basins

If there’s a pond in your neighborhood where rainwater eventually flows, its value goes far beyond aesthetics. Retention basins, detention ponds, and other stormwater facilities prevent flooding and downstream erosion, and they improve the quality of your community’s streams, rivers, and bays. n natural areas, only 10% of the rain that hits the ground runs off into streams, most of it is absorbed directly into the ground. When subdivisions are built, natural surfaces are replaced with hard surfaces like roofs, patios, driveways, and roads that prevent water from infiltrating into the ground dramatically increasing the amount of stormwater runoff. That’s A LOT more water moving MUCH faster causing downstream flooding, erosion of stream banks, and overwhelming wetlands.

Considered by the EPA to be the number one threat to America’s waters, stormwater conveys all the residues of our urban living as it courses through its drainage area, or watershed, to local streams and rivers receiving that water. To help mitigate the effects of stormwater runoff, many communities require developers to install stormwater infrastructure that reduces the flow of water from the subdivision to pre-development rates.

Wade Burcham, "So when you move into a subdivision, you, of course, want to be a good neighbor to your downstream neighbors, and you want your upstream neighbors to be a good neighbor to you. So that’s what detention/retention basins basically do. They can help hold that excessive amounts of water that is formed from the increasing of the impervious area. It holds that water and allows that water to slowly dissipate over time reducing the erosion on either your downstream neighbors or on you from your upstream neighbors."

Along with reducing the volume of stormwater runoff, these ponds also minimize downstream impacts and capture trash, sediment, organic debris, chemicals, and other pollutants.

The most common types of stormwater facilities include:

1. Dry ponds (detention basins), which hold stormwater for a short amount of time before slowly emptying out completely, and
2. Wet ponds (retention basins), which maintain a permanent pool of water throughout the year with levels that fluctuate to accommodate additional stormwater.

As a developer completes the construction of a subdivision, they’ll transfer the responsibility of pond maintenance to the property owners association. Along with as-built drawings and an inspection report, the developer should provide an Operations and Maintenance Plan which will include instructions on how to inspect and maintain all stormwater facilities in the subdivision. It’s important to recognize that once this transfer takes place, the property owners of the entire subdivision are responsible for the pond’s ongoing maintenance.

J.J. McCool, "The thing about retention ponds that’s so important, that with a detention pond, if you let it go unmaintained for a number of years trying to get it back to a state that’s functioning can be very expensive. So the old adage about an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, is very apt when talking about retention ponds."

By regularly inspecting and maintaining your subdivision’s pond, you’re not only being a good neighbor, your improving water quality for everyone’s benefit. While some municipalities require routine inspections, it’s important that all stormwater infrastructure is inspected every 6 to 12 months and following every major rain event. Be sure to perform your first inspection before the developer transfers the responsibility of your pond to the POA. Look for any sediment that has built up in the pond itself and the “in falls” and “out falls” Construction activity without properly functioning erosion control, like silt fences, result in excess sediment washing into your stormwater pond which can block outfalls and reduce storage capacity.

The developer is responsible for the removal of any sediment found in the pond before turning control over to the association. In dry ponds, look for standing water which can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes and indicate ongoing erosion within the pond. Look for overgrown grass and brush which can block the outfall and decrease storage capacity. Check for any bare or unstable surfaces which become extremely vulnerable to additional erosion and cause sedimentation. Look out for any large trees within a pond which can reduce storage capacity, and make sure no trees are growing on the berm. Their roots can deteriorate the integrity of that berm increasing the likelihood of a blowout.

Three Mile Creek - Mobile's Destination Waterway