Imagine the oldest place you’ve ever visited. The muffled, musty catacombs of Rome. The ruins of a medieval castle, where stone steps are worn from centuries of foot traffic. The still sanctity of a grand cathedral.
Now put yourself in a canoe, drifting along the current of the Coosa or Tombigbee rivers, where water has shaped stone and shore for millennia, not centuries, and where a natural cathedral of cypress and oak trees has dropped leaves for innumerable seasons, unobserved by man.
To consider time, to wrap our minds around its mysteries and wonders, we look to the rivers; it’s no coincidence that 6 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year. Some Alabamians might be surprised to learn that their state has more navigable river miles than any other state in the nation, and as we mark the passage of time, notably our bicentennial, we also find ourselves looking to the rivers.
miles of streams in Alabama. Strung together end-to-end, these streams would stretch around the entire Earth more than five times.
To lead us on this journey, we turn to Dr. William Deutsch, a retired research fellow from Auburn University who has spent more than 30 years studying the rivers of Alabama, following its currents around unfamiliar bends and sharing his passion and knowledge with scientists across the state. In coordination with the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, Deutsch published the beautifully written and presented book “Alabama Rivers: A Celebration & Challenge,” an “outgrowth of my love of all things aquatic,” he explains in its introduction. But it’s also the culmination of a lifetime of meticulous scholarship. The result is a comprehensive telling, a past, present, and future overview of Alabama’s waterways.
With the knowledge we’ve gained over the past 200 years of statehood comes a responsibility to act on those lessons. As noted in the book’s introduction, written by Michael Kensler: “Over the past 30 years, the science of river ecology has made great strides. We now know more clearly than ever before how river systems function and what steps we need to take to keep them healthy.”
Traveling backwards through Alabama’s geological and anthropological histories, it becomes apparent that no two rivers are created equal. Deutsch explains that, “Geology, topography, and the water cycle have shaped Alabama’s rivers and their watersheds, giving them different ‘personalities’ that teem with special plants and animals.”
gallons of water per day flow into the Gulf of Mexico from the Mobile Bay Basin, the fourth largest in the country in terms of annual discharge.
The significance of these rivers in the development of Alabama cannot be overemphasized, a fact that is reflected on the state seal. The Great Seal of Alabama is, in fact, “the only state seal in the US that features its rivers.” The first governor of the state, William Wyatt Bibb, either commissioned or drew for himself the state’s first seal, complete with 10 major rivers. The design is an important insight into the perceived importance of Alabama’s waterways, but, as Deutsch explains, there’s far more to the story.
“As important as a people-centered interpretation of the state seal may be, such an interpretation is insufficient to grasp the full importance of Alabama’s rivers. For that, we need to go back in time, in prehistoric or deep time, to see how great forces of the earth created these rivers and how life forms adapted and spread throughout them to give Alabama an aquatic treasure that is unique in the world.”
In Alabama, most rivers lead to Mobile. In fact, almost two-thirds of the state’s 52,400 square miles drains through the Mobile Basin, “a 44,000-square-mile convergence of several large rivers that flow through parts of Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi but end in Alabama at Mobile Bay.”
Human civilization is built around water. The famous naturalist and author William Bartram, upon seeing the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers in 1775, declared, “This is perhaps one of the most eligible situations for a city in the world.” Bartram knew what he was talking about; the capital city of Montgomery would later be built just a few miles south.
Alabama ranks first in the nation for stream miles per square mile of land area.
Native Americans, the state’s earliest inhabitants, built entire civilizations around the sustenance of our waterways; the luckiest among us have seen firsthand the traces of early human existence in the Mobile Delta. The Bottle Creek Indian Mounds, occupied from about 1250 to 1550, consisted of 18 earthen mounds, the largest towering at over 50 feet high. From the early exploration of Europeans to the escape of slaves along the Underground Railroad, the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers have served as a stage to some of history’s greatest performances.
You don’t have to own a flat-bottomed boat or a have a degree in biology to recognize the ecological richness of Alabama’s river system, particularly in the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Observant commuters on the Causeway might spot a pelican enjoying a fishy breakfast or an alligator bobbing at the water’s surface.
“Baldwin and Mobile counties border Mobile Bay, receive the most rainfall of any other Alabama counties, and have the highest plant productivity and overall biodiversity in the state,” Deutsch confirms. The Mobile Delta, a 10-by-40-mile network of lakes and streams, is “ecologically important, functioning as a sponge that filters sediments and pollution from two-thirds of Alabama as well as portions of neighboring states. The expanse provides habitat for numerous rare plants and animals.”
Forests make up half or more of the land use in the watersheds of the Tombigbee and Mobile rivers, and about 20 percent of the land is used for agriculture. The Mobile Delta has been dubbed “America’s Amazon” and is described as one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. But with that vitality comes vulnerability; the Delta faces a host of threats, “including toxins and excess sedimentation and nutrients coming from the many streams that feed it.”
Some advocates, including Alabama native and Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, support the creation of a national park in the Mobile Delta in order to enforce stronger environmental protections. One point of focus among biologists is the preservation of the Alabama red-bellied turtle, the state reptile, which is endangered and ranks as “highest conservation concern” by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “Alabama has more species of turtles than any state,” Deutsch says, “and even more than the entire Amazon River Basin — one of our many biodiversity claims to fame.”
Alabama ranks in the top 10 nationally for the most types of native plants and animals.
Time flows like a river, and it’s important to consider what’s downstream. Deutsch spends most of his time thinking about the future, noting that “our challenge is to become more aware of rivers so we can wisely protect the good, restore the bad, and not neglect the lifeblood of the state.”
Humans have changed our rivers in ways that are both direct and indirect. Directly, we have manipulated rivers to produce electricity, irrigate crops, move goods and reduce flooding, among countless other uses. But we’ve also affected our waterways indirectly in the form of land use changes in the watershed. “Often, good intentions to do things for human benefit have unintended negative consequences for rivers,” Deutsch explains. “These impacts affect rivers in three significant and interconnected ways: water quantity, water quality, and aquatic biota.”
But Deutsch does more than simply identify the threats facing Alabama waterways. After an extensive exploration of the problems we face, he issues seven achievable, clear-eyed challenges to the reader: Keep learning about rivers, expand river education programs, make water conservation a way of life, support river organizations, promote good water policy, develop a personal river ethic and get out on the water.
Considering the scope of the issue, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the task ahead, but scientists such as Deutsch say there’s no time for cynicism. He prefers, instead, to give ordinary Alabamians the tools to make a difference, however small.
“There’s a lot you can do … now … to keep Alabama a beautiful river state.”
To purchase a copy of “Alabama Rivers: A Celebration & Challenge,” visit alabamariversbook.org.