Waste Not Want Not

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NPR News and Classical Music for North Central Alabama

Randy Haddock, a field director for the Cahaba River Society, wades through his rolling playground, near Grants Mill Road and I-459, searching for small species on the bottom, gems that reaffirm his commitment to keep it clean and as untouched as humanly possible.”There’s another native species. Nowadays, they call it a delicate spike.
They’re getting more and more rare. It’s getting harder and
harder to find these.”

Unfortunately, humans are getting in his way. Human developers, who think this
stretch, and many others like it, near the Cahaba River are prime places for
homes, retail and all kinds of modern development.

But Haddock maintains this place should stay just the way it is.

“Every biologist that I’ve always talked to has always nodded their head and
said, yeah, that river is special. It’s got a lot of really unique and wonderful
things in it.”

It is also the source of drinking water for more than half a million people in
the Birmingham region.

So when Jefferson County officials wanted to bore a huge sewer tunnel underneath
the Cahaba, crisscrossing the river at least 14 times, Haddock and other
environmentalists shuddered.

The “SuperSewer” was super because of its diameter, 7-to-12 feet in places, and
because of its price tag – at least $141 million dollars – all of which was to
come from borrowed money for court-ordered sewer repairs. Protestors say there
were big problems.

“One, this tunnel boring under the river could’ve caused the collapse of the
tunnel and our drinking water would’ve literally gone down the drain.”

Adam Snyder of the Alabama Rivers Alliance.

“The other critical issue was that the development that could’ve ensued from
the sewer could’ve degraded our drinking water. And our drinking water is not
like a tissue that you can pull out of the box and another one comes up. Once
it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

The county commission eventually voted to stop the project, with the only
remaining detail of how to remove the boring equipment — a fiery debate in

But Jefferson County Commissioner Steve Small says these types of debates are
likely to continue, if there’s not a better understanding of how to limit or
accelerate growth.

“It is a mistake
for anyone to try to control growth with the sewer system. You should determine
what type of growth is going to come into to a certain area by zoning. And
people say, ‘I am for jobs and I am against expansion.’ Well you can’t have it
both ways.”

But there are some leaders in the county who believe you can.

Near a proposed shopping development and muffled behind the ever-increasing
traffic on Deerfoot Parkway near I-59 in Trussville, crickets and cicadas sing,
clinging to the brush along the banks of the upper Cahaba.

Despite their close proximity to the road, the creatures and the trickling
waterway are protected from an ordinance passed in 1999 that limits the amount
of growth along the river. The 125 foot buffer zone – or overlay – protects
the area from development and harmful chemicals.

It’s the only ordinance of its kind in Alabama. Mayor Gene Melton says it’s
a commitment to smart and environmentally-friendly growth.
“I think what we’re doing out here the environmentalists see that we’re sincere
in trying to protect the environment. We’re not giving them lip service on one
hand and messing up the environment on the other. We were the first ones to do
our overlay to protect the Cahaba River. And we’re continuing to beef that up
and to beef up our other ordinances as far retention and storm water…collecting
it and protecting our community from floods as well as trying to put that water
back in the ground.”

Mayor Melton and the city of Trussville are also involved in a land-use study of
the Upper Cahaba Watershed.

Along with Hoover, Mountain Brook, Jefferson and Shelby Counties, a host of
environmental organizations are involved in the research. Environmental groups
such as the Cahaba River Society and The Nature Conservancy and landowners
including U.S. Steel are participating in hopes of addressing the future needs
of the residents along the river and the stresses future development could pose
to it.

Larry Watts is with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham.

“The truth is there is very likely to be continued development in the Cahaba
watershed one way or the other. Whether it’s on sewer or septic tanks or however
it gets developed. But what is the kind of development that would be most
appropriate to allow some continued economic development in the corridor and at
the same time, protect the sensitive water source there. As well as the biodiversity
that’s there in terms of plant and animal life and other kinds of natural features.”

The RPC, which is overseeing the study plans a public hearing next month.

The Alabama River Alliance’s Adam Snyder says the study is a good first step
toward curbing uncrontrolled growth along the Cahaba. And after the SuperSewer
controversy, it could very well be the first time — at least regionally —
that there’s been a real effort to get environmental and developmental
interests on the same page.

“My hope with this whole SuperSewer thing is that we didn’t just stop something –
but we created something.”

Namely, some dialogue.