Watershed Approach

In 2013, the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP) embarked upon a holistic, watershed-based approach to guide coastal ecosystem restoration and protection measures through watershed management planning. The MBNEP’s five-year Ecosystem Restoration and Protection strategy of Respect the Connect initiated this novel approach. It prescribes development of watershed management plans (WMPs) for drainage areas, not political jurisdictions, to ensure restoration projects are scientifically defensible and components of an overall management program.

Eight mile watershed

Map of the Eight Mile Creek Watershed, with watershed boundary (black) and municipal boundaries represented: City of Mobile (green), City of Prichard (blue), City of Semmes (purple), City of Chickasaw (red), and unincorporated Mobile County (uncolored).

The Eight Mile Creek Watershed provides an example, with Watershed boundaries containing portions of four different municipalities – the cities of Chickasaw, Prichard, Mobile, and Semmes - along with unincorporated areas of Mobile County, all draining to Eight Mile Creek. Rather than the traditional ways of pushing problems downstream for off-site management, this watershed-based approach focuses on managing the system closest to its source in a way that restores or mimics the function of the natural environment.

The watershed approach is based on this premise: The relationship between community growth and impaired waters develops over time. If we want to maintain a high quality of life, which in coastal Alabama is intrinsically tied to our water-rich landscape, communities must seek new ways to control stormwater runoff (and the pollution carried by it) created by the hard surfaces related to features of community growth, like driveways, sidewalks, streets, and rooftops.

The goals of watershed planning are to:

  1. Improve water quality,
  2. Improve habitats,
  3. Protect continued customary uses of biological resources,
  4. Improve watershed resilience, and
  5. Expand opportunities for community access.
Watershed funding

$170 million dollars in Deepwater Horizon-related funding has been allocated to projects identified through the watershed planning process

A WMP identifies problems that threaten the quality of receiving waters (waterbodies to which a watershed drains) and recommends prioritized solutions to those problems. It even identifies and recommends potential funding sources to pay for those solutions. Watershed plans provide a vehicle to ensure a sustainable quality of life for coastal residents by setting goals focused on the six common values most important to those living in coastal Alabama. These WMPs are invaluable to our State’s decision-makers, as they direct limited funding available through various sources. To date, over $170 million dollars in Deepwater Horizon-related funding has been allocated to projects identified through the watershed planning process.

Since 2009, the MBNEP has facilitated the creation and implementation of nine comprehensive WMPs. Throughout this effort, citizens have been engaged in documenting their community environmental concerns, learning about what impacts watershed health and how water runs through a drainage area, developing action plans to improve conditions, and engaging other residents in “being part of the solution” through volunteer monitoring, cleanups, and other activities.

Integral to the success of these plans are partnerships built from the initial stages of plan development and continuing through implementation of WMP recommendations, which may stretch out over a decade. The planning process reaches beyond geopolitical boundaries, bringing differing governing bodies together through intergovernmental task forces or public-private partnerships to manage shared interests and resources on a watershed scale. Creating a sense of ownership by engaging key stakeholders from the outset and incorporating community input and concerns to inform recommended actions generates momentum to carry the finished WMPs forward. They focus on teaching communities about their watersheds with data, gathered from existing sources or collected in the field, and including, but not limited to, geology and geography, biology and ecology, hydrology and climate. These planning processes relate scientific assessments to governance, demographics, and socioeconomics. Watershed engagement has been promoted through volunteer water quality monitoring programs, community clean-ups, paddle trips, and watershed educational signage.

Weeks bay stakeholder meeting

In 2016, over 40 stakeholders including residents, business owners, mayors, resource managers, farmers, and nonprofits all gathered to provide input for the Weeks Bay Watershed Management Plan which includes Fowl River and Magnolia River.

Thus far, throughout watershed planning efforts, over 1,500 citizens have been engaged in learning about the areas draining into their rivers and creeks and how natural flows have been altered over time. They are learning about what types and levels of pollutants are impairing or threatening their water quality, why shorelines are eroding, where restoration is most prudent and cost-effective, and when results from lots of hard work will finally pay off in terms of clean water and resilient buffers to storms and stormwater runoff.

The value of the collaboration required and inspired by watershed planning cannot be overstated. These plans have become as much about community development as they are about environmental protection. Creating a resilient watershed will require long-term commitment of governments, businesses, and citizens to responsibly grow their community by balancing development with environmental protection. Managing our coastal resources by watershed is a clear demonstration of how we are connected by water. The watershed approach is instrumental in developing a shared understanding of conservation priorities across many different stakeholder interests, and this understanding is key to informing future land and water management decisions.