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Guy Martin: When the Cahaba runs upstream, Part 2

By GUY MARTIN, guest columnist

When the Cahaba River runs upstream, you know things are out of whack.

Yesterday, we covered Rounds One and Two of the continuing EPA v. Jefferson County controversy over the Cahaba. The County spent millions cleaning up the Cahaba in the 1970s based on prevailing science, earning it national awards, but in 1992 with a new president came a new policy requiring the County to spend billions more, which the County’s scientists said were not founded in science. It is believed in many sectors that the County’s scientists were right. Yet, on the heels of Round One, the EPA has ordered new upgrades and the question facing us is what to do in Round Three.

Round Three

In short, this round should belong to us. We’ve never had empirical closure on Round One. In its 2004 Report to Congress, the EPA found “an absence” of causal data showing harm from SSO discharges to human health, and that the “leading” source of impairment to water quality is pollution from overland runoff. Meaning?– SSOs are not.

Five professionals have told me the Cahaba is only about 1% cleaner than before the four billion. In a civilized society, the public would have that closure, unsullied by the excesses of zealotry. The objective? Not to re-litigate the past, but to draw from it the essential role of cost-benefit economics and a firm footing on exactly what the science tells us about this river, including the following:

  • Downstream of nine treatment plants along the Cahaba, Birmingham Water pumps water from the Cahaba for a portion of your water supply. (So much for Will Rogers’ aphorism, “Always drink upstream of the herd.”)
  •  During dry spells, below the old Highway 280 dam on the Cahaba, water often flows upstream–to Birmingham Water’s intake pumps removing 60 million gallons per day, and reducing our river to a trickle. During droughts, US Fish and Wildlife reported in 2013, “nearly all of the flow of the Cahaba River is removed at the Birmingham Water Works intake point.”
  • Dams slow water down, which traps sediment and increases algae. There are at least four dams or fords between the Old 280 dam and Caldwell Mill Road.
  • Much of the water pumped by Birmingham Water Works to the Shades Mountain Water Treatment plant is distributed over the mountain into the valley areas of cities from Birmingham to Bessemer–which drain into the Black Warrior basin and not back into the poor Cahaba.

Bottom line: the EPA is ordering millions to be spent to decrease phosphorus in the river, amidst considerable uncertainty, when two far more obvious solutions exist: help Birmingham Water Works stop sucking the river dry, and eliminate the dams. These solutions radiate opportunities.

Birmingham was one council vote away from privatizing its water system years ago. As their counsel, I heard the New Jersey company say, “Never ration water during droughts in a state like Alabama, so blessed by
water resources. A zillion gallons in rivers are bypassing Birmingham every day–pump it in, and make money during droughts.” The company planned to do just that, turning droughts into profits. To its credit, Birmingham Water tried later to implement that plan, but lacked the political capital to see it through.

If we can pipe water into Birmingham and eliminate the dams on the Cahaba, her increased water volume will dilute the impact of phosphorus, polluted runoff and SSOs, and likely avoid the EPA’s mandated upgrades and an estimated 20% jump in water and sewer rates. The EPA’s requirements impact several counties and private operators in the Cahaba basin north of Centreville, an important economic spine of our state. When the EPA assaulted Atlanta over her sewers in the 1990s, the State of Georgia stood by her side. Jefferson County and Birmingham Water can use some help from power hitters in Montgomery to solve this eco-political problem.

Running water to Birmingham can earn returns for revenue bonds – an opportunity lost to a credit-less county. We can spend money on hard improvements with the promise of enhancing quality of life in this area, instead of burning money to meet EPA standards the rest of the nation avoids.

Guy V. Martin, Jr., is a former Adjunct Professor at the University of Alabama School of Law and a retired teacher at the Birmingham School of Law. He has worked extensively on projects such as the Turf Club, downtown hotels (the PickWick complex, Redmont and Tutwiler), Crossplex, and various public ventures, including several with his cousin, the late David Vann, former Mayor of Birmingham, during the Arrington years.  He is semi-retired, and serves as a Director of The Foundry Ministries.

Guy Martin: When the Cahaba runs upstream…

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