A river runs through it

by Jeana Durst, content director, JBMC Media

Our area is home to one of the most biodiverse rivers in the U.S.—learn how you can enjoy it responsibly year round

The Cahaba River spans nearly 200 miles, starting in north Jefferson County and emptying into the Alabama River just south of Selma.

One of our nation’s most biodiverse waterways happens to be located right in our backyard. The Nature Conservancy noted The Cahaba River as one of only eight “hotspots of biodiversity” out of 2,111 watersheds in the contiguous United States. The 194-mile long river is home to numerous plants, including the iconic Cahaba Lily, an aquatic flowering plant that grows only in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. It’s also the longest free-flowing river in Alabama. It’s the habitat of 131 species of fish, 28 species of freshwater snails, and 34 kinds of mussels, among many other wildlife varieties. And lucky for us, public access to the Cahaba River has been greatly expanded over the past eight years. But we have no guarantees that this biodiverse ecosystem will remain healthy. 

We caught up with David Butler, riverkeeper and staff attorney at Cahaba Riverkeeper, to find out more about how families can enjoy the river responsibly this summer and throughout the year. Founded in 2009 to defend the ecological integrity of the river and its watershed, the organization works “to ensure clean water and a healthy aquatic environment, and to preserve the recreational and aesthetic values of the river basin.” Cahaba Riverkeeper is also dedicated to the scientific study of the Cahaba and its tributaries, while keeping the public informed about their discoveries. 

Know Before You Go

The Cahaba is generally a very safe river. However, water levels can change the environment significantly. “I don’t know if all people actually recognize how powerful water is,” Butler says.

The Cahaba River is a safe river, but safety practices should still be followed by anyone who enjoys it.

In addition to following standard safety practices, it’s always imperative to let someone know when and where you are going before setting out on the water. “In the summertime, a five-mile innertube trip can last 10 hours, and people aren’t prepared for the reality,” Butler says. The flip side of this scenario happens when it rains and people are unable to maneuver high waters. Swiftwater rescue teams in several municipalities rescue people off the river routinely, and it is not uncommon for someone to get stuck out after dark. Other precautions include wearing appropriate clothing, taking plenty of water, and being mindful of wildlife.

To understand more about water levels and other safety considerations, consult www.cahabablueway.org. It’s also a great resource for a complete listing of access points, whether you want to fly fish for red eye bass on the Little Cahaba or mountain bike along the trail in Helena. This site also provides helpful maps and even photo galleries. It will tell you where the closest river gauge is and what the current water levels are. It even helps you plan for the weather. 

The Cahaba River is one of the most ecologically diverse rivers in the United States.

Another tool to help with planning is in the works. Once Cahaba Riverkeeper launches Cahabapedia, we will all be able to take a virtual float down the river. With this tool, paddlers and other recreational users will be able to proactively tour sections of the river before setting out. Plus, it will offer a centralized platform for area agencies to share information about the river with other agencies and academic researchers. 

Swim Guide 

The Cahaba Riverkeeper’s Swim Guide helps guide the public on water quality along the river, helping them make informed decisions before getting in the water.

Anyone wishing to swim in the Cahaba can be updated on the water conditions every Friday. “Waterkeepers are citizen scientists at heart. And one of our core missions is to answer questions that people have,” Butler says. It’s with this in mind that Cahaba Riverkeeper begun its Swim Guide program in 2013. Each week, Butler measures the quality of the water at all locations and posts them online to the Swim Guide each Friday in the summer. Levels of E. coli and other bacteria measurements are monitored to alert swimmers and other recreational users. You can even sign up to get a text message or email alerts for specific locations. Butler, who began as a volunteer and Board Member for Cahaba Riverkeeper also owns a canoe and kayak rental business serving the Cahaba. He would get families who came out and asked about the pollution of the river, wondering if it was safe to swim. “We’ve been able to educate people on when its most likely to be unsafe to swim, and what we’ve seen is that people appreciate having the ability to make plans based on this guide,” Butler says. 

Responsible Recreation

This “social distancing summer” is a perfect time to head to the river for recreation; in fact, Cahaba Riverkeeper encourages you to take photos and share your experience with them. Though they are currently unable to host regular large group cleanups due to coronavirus precautions, every family can still do their part. In some ways, clean up is even more essential than ever when you consider that the river is experiencing more traffic, yet fewer organized trash pick-up days. “If everyone just picked up a little, it doesn’t create a burden,” Butler says. Plus, it’s a great way to teach your kids about preserving nature. Join in Cahaba Riverkeeper’s virtual clean ups, whereby families can submit photos and descriptions of their clean-up efforts online to share with the larger community. 

The Cahaba River is perhaps most well-known for the Cahaba Lily, a flower found in just three states — Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. The flowers bloom from early May through the end of June.

And there are other ways to help too. One of the greatest threats to the health of the Cahaba is development pressure. “We’ve built so fast in Birmingham that we are pushing stormwater into the river, causing erosion and bank collapses,” Butler says. He explains that one danger of this is that mud pushed into the river then smothers the riverbed and insects living there, depriving fish of their natural food source. “We haven’t adopted low impact development like some states have,” Butler explains. This kind of responsible development is not something that people will naturally choose, so it has to be actively encouraged. “We aren’t against development—we are for responsible development,” Butler says.

Keeping the river clean and safe is a top priority for Cahaba Riverkeeper and its volunteers.

However, individuals can do a lot on to aid conservation on their personal property. “Our property drains somewhere, and what we do on our personal watershed has a big impact on the larger watershed,” Butler says. For instance, he recommends removing invasive plants like privet from our properties so they don’t re-seed along waterways or minimizing fertilizer usage. Butler reminds us that we can all be good stewards of the river, even from our own homes: “Whatever you do upstream has an impact downstream.” 

To learn more about Cahaba Riverkeeper and support this nonprofit’s important mission, visit cahabariverkeeper.org.

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