"Where Does Your Water Come From?"

Oct 10, 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court says it will hear arguments regarding the on-going water war involving Alabama. The specific case is between Florida, and Georgia, but it includes the river basin flowing through Alabama. The APR news team spent 2015 investigating the condition of Alabama's water supply and the health of its rivers. Click below to hear that series again...

All year long on Alabama Public Radio, we’ve been looking at water. Specifically, the condition of Alabama’s drinking water supply and the health of our rivers. The APR news team will present a number of stories over the coming weeks on the subject. It’s a story of politics, pollution, economics, and the obvious need that water is there when you turn on the tap. To that end, I traveled from one end of Alabama to the other to answer the question—where does your water come from?

It’s Sunday afternoon on Lake Guntersville. It’s ninety five degrees outside and Douglas Webster is calling it a day.

“It’s okay. It’s a little slow. Still, the fry…we were finding fry around the piers.”

And if you don’t know what a fry is…

“Baby bass,” says Webster.

Webster’s a bass fisherman. That’s where all the lingo comes from. While Webster secures his bass boat, Braulio Pedroso is just now putting his fishing hook in the water…

“Oh, I just came in about five minutes ago, and they started to bite already. I bet it will be good when the sun goes down a little bit.”

But Pedroso isn’t interested in catching bass. He’s sitting on a wooden dock with his back to all the boats out on the lake today. Pedroso is fishing for crappies…

“Crappie’s the best. They’re good eating, for everybody, the kids when you filet them. It’s white meat and tasty…

For Braulio Pedroso and Douglas Webster, Lake Guntersville is a fishing hole. For cities like Muscle Shoals, Florence, Decatur and Huntsville, there’s a more basic need and filling that need can get loud. Lake Guntersville is part of the Tennessee River which is a primary source of drinking water in north Alabama. This pumping station draws water from the Tennessee for residents of Huntsville.

“We can go anywhere down to thirty million gallons a day all the way up to sixty or seventy five million gallons, whatever the demand is," says Gary Bailey. He works for Huntsville Utilities. Bailey says demand is so predictable, you can set your watch to it…

“The peak times are early in the morning, and they’re on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday…”

And, Bailey says it’s not due to showers, or toilets flushing--but, rather watering the lawn...

“And, every sprinkler guy sets the sprinklers up for Monday, Wednesday, Friday. And they set up all up for the same time. So, there are our days when we get hit hardest, are Monday, Wednesday, Friday in the morning.”

Four turbines pull water from the Tennessee River. From here, it travels four miles through sixty inch pipes that date back to the 1960’s. The first stop is here at Huntsville’s South Parkway Water Treatment Plant. It sits behind a locked security gate just south of town. Chlorine and other chemicals are added to remove bacteria and pollutants. Then, Brewer says, the next step is a series of filters.

“These filters will trap anything point four or five microns, or larger. And all the bacteria is larger than point four or five microns, so even without the treatment these filters could capture the particles that are coming through the water.”

But, it’s not just bacteria that concerns environmentalists. There are two coal fired power plants on the Tennessee River, one to the east side of the state and one to the west, That’s raises the worry of chemicals like arsenic and mercury getting into the water…

The Tennessee River takes care of north Alabama. Cities like Tuscaloosa and Birmingham in the central part of the state rely on water from the Black Warrior river basin. A series of locks and dams was put in to create Lake Tuscaloosa. Residents here drink the water from the lake while coal barges carry cargo down the river to the Gulf of Mexico. This arrangement doesn’t make everybody happy…

“Well, the smell is similar to a sewer…”

That’s Penny Behling. She’s visiting Tuscaloosa from North Carolina on business…

“The water color is a brown color, and you see…actually, we as stand here talking, we can see the current moving, and we see trash in the water.”

Behling isn’t an environmentalist or a hydrologist. But, her line of work gives her the chance to see bodies of water across the country up close… Behling’s company goes from state to state holding dragonboat races to raise money for local charities. The Tuscaloosa Junior League is sponsoring this event on the Black Warrior. Behling says it’s easy to see when a lake or river is healthy and when it’s not…

“The cleanest water I’ve ever been in and worked a race was in Montana, where you can see all the way to the bottom. It’s so clear, you can see the rocks on the bottom of the lake.”

It’s not only homeowners who rely on water from the Black Warrior and its tributaries, but businesses as well. We’re at the Black Warrior Brewery in Tuscaloosa. Long before customers belly up to the bar, Co-owner Jason Spikes goes to work in the back. He's standing on a ten foot high platform, water hose in hand. It takes almost eight hundred gallons of water to clean his stainless steel brewing tanks and make his latest batch of beer. Spikes admits his livelihood depends on keeping Lake Tuscaloosa and the Black Warrior clean, and tonight he’s ready to put his money where his water is…

“Twenty percent of our beer sales are going to the river keeper. We also have a donation jar set up here, so everybody’s welcome to come in..”

If you want to know what a river keeper does, just go to the bar. Nelson Brooke just ordered and he has a specific flavor in mind…

“Lock 17. As it’s affectionately known as the lock next to Bankhead dam," says Brooke. It's the northern most dam on the Black Warrior River. And, I had to try it. I hadn’t had it before…”

Brooke is the Black Warrior riverkeeper. He’s head of a non-profit environmental group whose sole purpose is to protect the river from pollution and overdevelopment. Brook hopes that’s the message people take home tonight..

“We’ll hopefully they’re going to take away the connection. And also, if they didn’t know of the source of their drinking water is, which is also the source for this beer, they’ll go home knowing that.”

About sixty percent of Alabamians get their drinking water from rivers. The remaining forty percent have to drill for it…

“Groundwater is underneath the land surface, so it’s sort of out of sight and out of mind,” says Marlon Cook with the Alabama Geological Survey. He leads the team that finds new sources of groundwater like this one near Selma. That job often means a lot of hiking. We’re on highway two thirty one near Montgomery. Cook leads the way to an abandoned concrete slab which used to be a bustling rest stop. He and his team use this old well to test water quality and quantity for surrounding well fields that serve the Montgomery area. These wells are maybe a thousand feet or so deep. If you want to see the deepest well in Alabama, you need to know someone with the right set of keys… Cook and I head to the town of Ozark, between Troy and Dothan. Their well reaches over three thousand feet before ground. When the water reaches the surface, it’s over one hundred degrees. The town is happy with their system, but Marlon Cook is worried.

“I’m holding a hydrograph, which is a continuous graphical depiction of water levels over a long period of time.”

A hydrograph is a white map with black squiggles. The squiggles go up and down across the page to show rainfall that fills up wells like Ozark’s. It’s called water recharge. The low squiggles mean…

“That is the dry season where we have very minimal recharge in our aquifer.”

And the high squiggles?

“The peak is the peak of the recharge season which normally occurs in the spring during our wet season.”

This is why Cook is worried. The high squiggle for 2015’s spring time rainy season is half the size of the squiggle for 2014’s rainy season. Cook says that could mean a drought within weeks…

“For the Fall, things that are dependent on plentiful rainfall…there could be a concern for the coming fall and into next spring.”

The big worry is the peanut farms around Dothan. Still, the southern third of Alabama depends on well water to live. That includes cities like Montgomery, Dothan, and Troy as well as Baldwin County. There’s just one big exception in that part of the state. About ten miles west of Mobile, sits Big Creek Lake. It covers five and a half square miles, and it’s the primary source of drinking water for the city. The process may sound familiar by now. A series of eight turbines pumps around sixty five million gallons of water a day. It travels through sixty inch pipelines roughly four miles to water treatment plants for distribution…

The last stop on our trip around the state is a study in contrasts. Big Creek Lake is the west of Mobile. On the east is Mobile Bay. Seagulls compete for food in the marshy areas near Interstate 10 and U.S. Highway 90. People don’t drink the water out of the bay, but there are environmental concerns. At the north end of the bay, far from the noise of traffic, is the fiove rivers delta. The Mobile, the Spanish, the tensaw, the Apalachee and the Blakeley rivers all empty at one point into Mobile Bay. Fourteen percent of all the fresh water in the nation flows into the bay.

"Oh, yeah a lot of people don't know that," says Steven Carey. He teaches biology at the University of Mobile.

"They don't realize the size of the drainage basin we have here. It's the fourth largest, in terms of discharge."

One catch is those five rivers also deliver pollution from three states…

“Oh, north Alabama, parts of Georgia and even in North Mississippi,” says Carey.

But, when it comes to the condition of Mobile Bay, we thought we’d ask a familiar face. Penny Behling and her fleet of dragonboats made their way from the Black Warrior River and Tuscaloosa to a fundraiser here at five points delta.

“ When you look down in the water, you can’t see all the way to the bottom, but you can see farther down than you can in the Black Warrior for example.”

Despite the assessment, Steven Carey remains worried. He knows people who’ve lived along Mobile Bay for decades and they see the difference development has made. Pollution, politics, and the need to keep the water flowing. Those are just some of the topics the APR newsroom will be examining during our series of Alabama’s water supply. You can listen in during Morning Edition and All Things Considered, or go to our website APR.org.