Can the Cahaba River survive another commercial development? The Birmingham City Council and the Mayor’s office proudly declare that they don’t know and don’t care.
“This could be absolutely the most important decision that we make in our lives,” warned Councilor Carol Reynolds at the January 13 Birmingham City Council meeting. The list of problems that plague the Cahaba River, the drinking source for 25 percent of Alabama residents, includes low oxygen levels, high bacteria levels, and toxins such as metals, insecticides, and herbicides. “Higher water purification costs will increase costs for rate payers,” Reynolds added.
Her colleagues on the council dais, however, refused to budge from their determination to boost the city’s economic fortunes—even if that means the degradation of the river. Voting 6 to 3 [Reynolds, Councilor Valerie Abbott, and Councilor Joel Montgomery opposed the project] to approve the development of 256 acres into a subdivision in the Overton Community by Grants Mill Estates, LLC., the council joined surrounding municipalities in another round of Russian roulette with one of the nation’s cleanest (for now) water systems.
The development will include 281 single-family homes and 14 apartment buildings (totalling 464 units). Originally, developers wanted to include a service station on the land that is part of the Cahaba watershed, but at least the city had enough sense to make them toss out that idea. Other concessions from the developers include retaining vegetation along Grants Mill Road and expanding a 50-foot buffer zone protecting tributaries of the Cahaba to 100 feet.
“This project is going to discharge dirt into a tributary and then into the Cahaba River,” said Alabama Environmental Council attorney Bart Slawson, who has threatened to sue over the development because of permit violations regarding the amount of sediment allowed into the river. “The bells and whistles [in the covenants protecting the Cahaba] will not change the discharge.” The position of the Alabama Environmental Council is that the Cahaba River cannot tolerate any more sediment. The river is currently listed by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] and Alabama Department of Environmental Management [ADEM] as so polluted already by sediment that any additional pollution will severely impact water quality, according to an e-mail sent by Slawson to the City Council.
A recent meeting between the developers, the council, and other city officials, to ensure that steps are taken to protect the Cahaba, exposed some bitter truths regarding Councilor Elias Hendricks’ willingness to exclude the public from meetings with councilors [any meeting with a quorum of the Council present is an open meeting, unless the meeting is declared an executive session involving litigation or discussion of someone's character]. Hendricks criticized councilors at a council meeting two weeks earlier for urging the public to attend the meeting with developers. “When you’re working out differences, the fewer people involved, the better. It’s not like you’re hiding anything from the public,” said Hendricks with a straight face. “When you’re sitting down, trying to negotiate a solution, and you’re going to be dealing with scientific things, I think the fewer people in the room, the better.” Hendricks did not explain why the public should not be privy to “scientific things,” but then, condescension is the norm at City Hall. As usual, a flippant Councilor Bert Miller could not resist sticking his foot in his mouth. “We act like these developers are terrorists. They’re not going to poison our drinking water!”
Also at issue is the $250,000 that Birmingham and surrounding municipalities contributed to the Upper Cahaba Watershed Study. The Zoning Committee, chaired by Councilor Abbott, had recommended that the council wait until the study is completed in the spring before acting on the development. Councilor Reynolds questioned why so much money was spent if the study was just going to be ignored. “We have just funded a study and taken taxpayer dollars and thrown them out the window,” said Reynolds in disgust. “It is our responsibility to protect public health and public drinking water.”
In an interview after the council action had been taken, Mayor Bernard Kincaid agreed with Council President Lee Loder’s assessment that development in the Cahaba watershed was inevitable. “How does Birmingham balance those very, very competing interests of development, which are absolutely necessary for us to grow, and yet protect what is one of the highest quality water systems in the nation?” asked the Mayor. “That’s a tough call. At some point Birmingham has to get in the mix.” With absolutely no hint of irony, Kincaid described the balance between economic development and water protection as “a kind of ecological balance.” After admitting that he was “comfortable” with the conditions his staff reached with developers regarding the watershed protection, Kincaid seemed to contradict himself. “Where the need for development and preserving the pristine quality of the water intersect is the point where you start making compromises,” said the Mayor. “And I’m not sure that we can compromise the water quality at all.”
Kincaid disagreed with Councilor Reynolds that the $250,000 spent for the Upper Cahaba Watershed Study was a waste of money. Insisting that Birmingham has done more than other local jurisdictions to protect the Cahaba River, Kincaid said, “I don’t hear other municipalities being pushed back from their development ideas based on the outcome of something as nebulous as a study.” This statement begs the question, why spend $250,000 on a study if one believes studies are nebulous? &