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.