Field of Streams: Reconnecting the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers Would Restore Ecosystem Lost to Dams

The Corps of Engineers has drafted a plan to reconnect the Cahaba and Alabama rivers. (Photo by Hunter Nichols, TNC.)

Dams were built across the United States from the 1920s to the 1960s with the hope they would change economies and do great things for people all over the U.S.

But there was an unintended consequence in many places, including Alabama.

“Looking back with hindsight, if they were going to build a dam below the Cahaba River, they should have accounted for maintaining the connection of the ecosystem, but they didn’t,” said Mitch Reid, director of The Nature Conservancy in Alabama. “We’re trying to make it right now.”

Toward that end, TNC held public meetings to discuss a plan from the U.S. Corps of Engineers that would build a system of canals to reconnect the Cahaba and Alabama rivers and allow fish to make their way along the river system down to the Mobile area.

Reid said that people had been unaware of the importance of the Cahaba River from just south of Birmingham to Centreville in Bibb County.

“It’s really one of the most important places on the planet for life because there’s so much diversity there,” he said. “Not only did we not realize the importance of the Cahaba River, we also didn’t understand so much of those life systems rely on fish that have to traverse their way up from near Mobile.

“Back in the middle of the 1900s, we just thought a river was sort of itself,” Reid continued. “Now we know that … it’s the connection that’s really important for that system.”

TNC’s director said that if the state is not going to remove its system of dams – and the Army Corps of Engineers cites reasons that’s a bad idea – then building canals is the solution.

Cahaba River. Photo Credit: Hank Black

“It’s not like we’re gonna just blow out the side and water’s gonna run around,” he said. “These are going to be controlled structures but they’re going to allow for these fish to move up and down the system and sort of swim around the dams.

“It sounds easy,” Reid continued, “but these are very complex structures. We’re gonna have to engineer functioning river systems that exist, sort of in parallel to the Alabama River at Millers Ferry and Claiborne in order to allow for the species to move up and down the system.”

If done correctly, the proposed canal system would allow 19 examples of fish to move up and down the system. To do that, a river system must be designed that looks natural when compared to a river system in Alabama.

“We’re going to try to recreate in these bypass channels the kind of habitat that you would see along the Cahaba River,” Reid said, “so that we’ll actually get the fish moving up and down the system.”

Biological Imperative

The Nature Conservancy director said fish have demonstrated their willingness to make the trek.

“We’ve seen examples of fish trying to go up the dam and literally beating themselves bloody on the dams, trying to move upstream,” he said. “That’s happening right now.

The project would not be inexpensive. It is projected to cost as much as $188 million.

“I’m not trying to downplay that at all,” Reid said, calling it “a huge investment in Alabama.

“But we also know that if we don’t do it, we’re going to start seeing species lost on the Cahaba River and we’re going to start impacting the economy of Central Alabama,” he said. “Nobody wants to be dealing with new endangered species in the middle of our state. It’s an expensive engineering solution to avoid a very big problem that’s coming right at us right now.”

The fight over endangered species would pit the environment against development, or “tree huggers versus businesses,” Reid said. “We are trying to avoid that fight by fixing this problem in the very short window of time that we have left.”

The Nature Conservancy director said there’s more at stake than just getting those 19 species of fish from Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico to the Cahaba River again.

“If we do it right, we’re going to restore this natural heritage that we’ve lost,” Reid said. “It used to be, before we built these dams, that you would have these migrations of really amazing fish like striped bass that everybody would talk about.”

The director spoke of sturgeons – “250-, 300-pound monsters coming up the river. That was an entire industry for caviar on the Alabama River. If we’re successful, we’ll return those migrations, and that’s going to be a benefit to our fishermen and our hunters and the people who love to benefit from the outdoor recreation.

“How cool would it be to say that the Alabama shad or the skipjack or the mullet or the striped bass are running up and down the rivers again,” Reid said. “That could have a huge benefit to not only the Cahaba River – to protect the water quality – but to the people of the Black Belt who have a new resource to try to bring in tourism and build some businesses around this restored system.”

The director compared the reconnected rivers to a sort of Field of Dreams.

“If we can get the fish back up the river, then it’s up to you to go catch them,” he laughed. “You’re gonna have some really cool opportunities once we start getting these native fish runs coming back up the system.”

Sort of a Field of Streams?

“That’s perfect!” Reid exclaimed. “If we build it, they will come. You can quote me on that. This is a field of streams and if we build it, they’ll come.”