Learn how a lily saved the Cahaba River. Join the Cahaba River Society Family Reunion on January 31

Birmingham Alabama
Majestic Cahaba Lily, photo by Pat Byington, Bham Now

On Thursday, January 31 at Independent Presbyterian Church, the Cahaba River Society (CRS) will be celebrating their 30th Anniversary Annual Meeting with a Cahaba Family Reunion.

For the first time in three decades, the organization that has led the charge to defend one of the most biodiverse rivers in North America and the source of half of Birmingham Metro’s drinking water, is gathering supporters old and new together to reflect on the Cahaba River Society’s past and ignite a new path for its future.

CLEAN 100 Learn how a lily saved the Cahaba River. Join the Cahaba River Society Family Reunion on January 31
Cahaba River Society Conservation Director Dr. Randall Haddock. Photo courtesy of Cahaba River Society

As part of the reunion, supporters are being asked to send in or bring to the reunion, photos and videos of their fondest memories of the river and the organization.

To help CRS with this task, I am submitting my fondest stories right here.

Why we needed a Cahaba River Society

In September of 1989, I started my new job as the Executive Director of the Alabama Conservancy.  My neighbor at that 2717 7th Avenue location was a new organization called the Cahaba River Society.  Despite being twenty years older, The Alabama Conservancy, which a few years later was renamed the Alabama Environmental Council, was like a big brother to the fledgling CRS, but it never truly felt like it.

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Photo of Alabama Conservancy staff at 2717 7th Avenue South in 1990. The Cahaba River’s Society office was two doors down.

We were both too busy in those days, especially CRS.

At the time, CRS was fighting for the very survival of the river. For example, CRS opposed oil and gas projects that were being allowed to dump their drilling muds and chemicals back into river.

They were also confronting explosive population growth and development that were occurring  within the Cahaba River watershed. In the late 80s the state’s water quality standards for the Cahaba River were woefully weak. It was the job of the Cahaba River Society to upgrade the water quality standards and make them more stringent to protect our drinking water.

Proposing stronger regulations have never been an easy task in Alabama. In fact, it is near impossible.

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La’Tanya Scott giving an environmental education class.  Photo from the Cahaba River Society

Cahaba Lily became a symbol for the river

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Bailie Clark and Payton H Stantis. Photo courtesy of Bailie Clark.

But that all changed when Guy Arello and Beth Maynor Finch, two of the founding members of the Cahaba River Society captured the hearts and minds of all Alabamians and gave us all a reason to care for the Cahaba River.

They made the Cahaba Lily the symbol of the river.

Through Guy’s beautiful graphics and Beth’s stunning photography, our community rallied around that lily. It was so significant, years later, when the Cahaba River Society car tag was created, it was the lily prominently displayed and the words Save the Cahaba replaced Alabama’s tagline “Heart of Dixie” on the tag.

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2001 version of the Cahaba River Society car tag

Stronger rules and a National Wildlife Refuge

With the Cahaba Lily as a symbol, the Cahaba River Society stopped the companies from dumping their muds into the Cahaba and it’s tributaries.  They moved ADEM to create a new more protective and stringent water quality standard called the “Outstanding Alabama Waters” or OAW.

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Exploring the Cahaba lilies in nearby Bibb County. Photo courtesy of the Cahaba River Society

And those Cahaba Lilies inspired Birmingham area Congressman Spencer Bachus to propose and pass through the U.S. Congress legislation establishing the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge, most likely the only National Wildlife Refuge in the U.S. created to save a lily.

Cahaba Lily
A stand of Cahaba Lilies aka Hymenocallis coronaria at Hargrove Shoals. Each flower opens overnight and lasts *one* day. (Bham Now)

For me, after 30 years, my fondest memory is taking my daughter Whitney, each May or June to see the Cahaba lilies. Nothing compares to spending a day with a loved one, getting wet, stepping ever so carefully along the   shoals and then kneeling and sitting among the lilies. Thanks to the Cahaba River Society, it is all possible.

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Bham Now’s Pat Byington with his daughter Whitney Byington at the Cahaba River in 2012.

Be a part of the Cahaba Family Reunion: 30th Anniversary Annual Meeting

So mark your calendar – Cahaba Family Reunion: 30th Anniversary Annual Meeting – Thursday, January 31, 5:30 to 8:00 at Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham.

CRS is asking supporters to share their memories.  You can do it 3 ways:

1. Send CRS a Cahaba anniversary video. Here is Cahaba River Society’s longtime Executive Director Beth Stewart’s video as an example:

2. Send them your Cahaba photos. Contribute to the Cahaba Family Photo Album! Please share your favorite photos, both new and old, of you, your family and your friends on the Cahaba. Take a moment to scroll through the camera roll on your phone or dig through your hold scrap books and send CRS your #ThrowBackThursday Cahaba photos!

Please email all photo and video contributions to Katie Shaddix at katies@cahabariversociety.org.

And, the third item….

Join Cahaba River Society at the meeting! Take part in a group “family” photo and celebrate three decades of progress and accomplishments.


Pat Byington
Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

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