If we want to restore our rivers in Alabama, we need to save the skinny water – creeks and streams

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Shades Creek
Shades Creek at Brookwood Village which closed, except for the Hickory Tavern and Five Guys. (Pat Byington/Bham Now)

The following story is part of Friends of Shades Creek lore as shared by Jim Brown, a former History professor at Samford University.

A few years ago, members of the group were observing Shades Creek after a litter cleanup at the now nearly-closed Brookwood Village on the Homewood/Mountain Brook city line.

Brookwood Village—one of the first malls in Alabama—was built in the early 1970s. Shades Creek resides in between the mall and Lakeshore Parkway. A long 54.6 mile tributary, Shades Creek runs from near Ruffner Mountain in Irondale toward Birmingham, Mountain Brook, Homewood, Hoover and Bessemer and ends its journey on the Shelby / Bibb County line when it flows into the Cahaba River.

Brookwood
The blue line is the original path of Shades Creek before it was channelized next to Brookwood Village. (Goodwyn Mills Cawood)

Perhaps the most altered waterway in the state, that particular segment of the river by Brookwood Village is routinely mistaken for a massive drainage ditch.

At the foot of the mall, the creek supporters quietly gazed at the waters below looking for signs of life on a 25-yard stretch of the stream.

To their surprise, they saw a Longear sunfish, a minnow called a Largescale Stoneroller, an Alabama Hogsucker and even a number of Alabama Bass.

“We were high enough on the bank and far enough from the water that our presence wasn’t disturbing the fish so they were kind of doing what fish do and went along their merry way,” said Paul Freeman, the freshwater ecologist within the group.

For the members of the Friends of Shades Creek, it was an experience they will never forget. Even in one of Shades Creek’s most negatively impacted segments, there were fish.

Or as one member told me, “Hope and potential.”

“I Remember” Series

longleaf
(US Forest Service)

Over the past month, as part of our “I Remember” series, we have learned how two Auburn University researchers founded The Longleaf Alliance and launched a national movement to bring back the South’s longleaf forests. In our second installment, we looked at the history of two game birds—wild turkey and wild quail—and the efforts to restore their habitats and populations in Alabama.

In this—our third and final story in the series—we will learn how urbanized and abused streams in Alabama are being restored thanks to dedicated advocates.

To learn more, we will explore a segment of Shades Creek, Dog River in Mobile and Pinchgut Creek in Trussville.

Shades Creek—Bring Back a Forest at Brookwood

Brookwood
Shades Creek at Brookwood Village (Pat Byington/Bham Now)

The closure of Macy’s in 2022 and the subsequent plans to redevelop Brookwood Village provide an opportunity to bring back the segment of Shades Creek where the Friends group saw the fish swimming years ago.

“If you go east of that site, along the creek, you have Jemison Park which is really beautiful. It shows the true nature of Shades Creek,” said Jane Reed Ross, a Senior Landscape Architect at Goodwyn Mills Cawood (GMC), who also designed the Shades Creek Greenway.

“To the west of the Brookwood Village site the creek flows along Lakeshore. It’s channelized along that entire stretch all the way to Columbiana Road to just under I-65. But it’s more forested, like Jemison. It looks like a creek.”

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to help improve the water quality of a creek or bring it back to life.

Presently, at the Brookwood portion of the creek, there are few if any trees or plants growing alongside the river that filter and slow down fast-moving stormwater runoff and sediment coming from nearby parking lots. Simply landscaping around the creek will improve water quality and help all the living things in that part of the creek.

“I think the redevelopment of that site is a grand opportunity to revisit the way Shades Creek has been landscaped so it can look like the creek to the east and to the west,” added Ross. “Moreover, we could link the trails so that we have better connectivity for active lifestyles in our community.”

100,000 Pounds of Trash from Dog River Watershed

Dog River
Dog River Bridge (Dog River Clearwater Revival)

Dog River in Mobile may be only seven miles long, but its watershed covers nearly all of Mobile and some of the county.

How much? Here are the numbers for the entire Dog River Watershed—beyond the seven miles:

    • 174: miles of streams that flow into the Dog River
    • 59,703: number of acres within the Dog River Watershed
    • 146,237: number of people who live within the watershed

If you are standing within the city limits of Mobile, you are likely part of the Dog River Watershed. And we can’t stress enough how important this river is to the ecological state of the city of Mobile and the waters it drains into—Mobile Bay and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

Dog River
2008 Graph of the Dog River Watershed and the amount of urban area (Dog River Clearwater Revival

The volunteer river protection group that champions the Dog River was founded in the mid-1990s. They arguably have the best name of any such organization in Alabama and perhaps the country. Their title?

Dog River Clearwater Revival

The organization works on many fronts. For example, since Mobile is one of the wettest cities in the U.S., they tackle stormwater and sediment issues.

“Our group focuses on the entire watershed,” said Morgan Counts, the group’s Executive Director. “For Dog River’s conditions to improve, the entire watershed has to be part of the solution.”

In recent years, their biggest success story has been removal of litter from the watershed.

“Litter is a really big issue. It’s unsightly, it causes water quality problems, it affects wildlife, and again it’s just not something you want floating up in your backyard,” said Counts.

For the past few years, the group—in partnership with the City of Mobile, the Osprey Initiative and many local organizations—has installed litter traps throughout the watershed. In 2020 alone, they collected over 100,000 pounds of garbage within the streams and along the banks.

Dog River
Litter collected on Dog River (Dog River Clearwater Revival)

The Dog River is a big part of the community here on the coast—Mobilians are really connected to their waterways. So, it’s important for everyone to care because we are so privileged and lucky to live on the coast, to have public access to Dog River,” added Counts.

Pinchgut Creek and the Health of the Cahaba River

Trussville Alabama
Pinchgut Creek in Trussville (Friends of Pinchgut Creek)

Everyone has heard of the Cahaba River, one of the most biodiverse waterways of its size in the United States. But did you know a small, three-mile-long creek that flows through the heart of downtown Trussville is the key to the health of the Cahaba River? That creek is called Pinchgut Creek.

Crammed in between a U.S. Highway and railroad tracks—and channelized over the years like Shades Creek—portions of Pinchgut Creek also may be mistaken for a ditch.

In early 2022, the Friends of Pinchgut Creek was formed.

“Our mission is to take care of the Cahaba headwaters, Pinchgut Creek and all the tributaries that flow into the Cahaba River,” said Friends of Pinchgut Creek and Trussville resident Jean Cox.

“We want people to know creeks and streams are important—they matter.”

Along with regular litter cleanups, the new group organized and convened the Cahaba Headwaters Collaboration—the first gathering of its kind in recent memory of local decision makers, residents and river protection groups.

“Finding ways to restore creeks like Pinchgut is the key to restoring the Cahaba River itself,” Beth Stewart, Executive Director with the Cahaba River Society, told Bham Now.

Trussville
Pinchgut Creek in Trussville (Friends of Pinchgut Creek)

“What’s happening to Pinchgut and a lot of creeks is also what’s happening to the Cahaba. There’s all this added stormwater runoff that’s being delivered to the river from these developed areas and the river itself is carrying a lot more water. It has to get wider. Its banks are collapsing and eroding. The mud load in the river fills up the bottom of the river and destroys the habitat along the banks.”

Cox has been very pleased with the reception her group has received from local Trussville officials and the Mayor.

“They are listening and working closely with us.”

How to Get Involved

Trussville
Pinchgut Creek in Trussville (Friends of Pinchgut Creek)

Interested in restoring the creeks, streams and rivers of Alabama? There are many groups throughout the state dedicated not only to the big rivers but entire watersheds and yes, even small neighborhood streams.

The Alabama Rivers Alliance has produced an interactive map with contacts:

Other groups that can help connect you to Alabama streams and creeks:

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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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