Mobile Bay Magazine’s 4th Annual Watershed Awards

Mobile Bay’s Annual Honor recognizes the environmental guardians of our communities.

Mobile Bay Magazine's Watershed Award winners 2023
Opening Photo by Matthew Coughlin

Crystal-clear waves lap onto sugar sand beaches. Rivers flow and teem with wildlife, forming  America’s Amazon. Two-hundred-year old oak trees line the streets, shading the sidewalk as squirrels play in the branches. The Alabama Gulf Coast is a place like no other and we are all called to do our part to protect it for future generations. The 2023 Watershed Awards honors 10 individuals who are leading the way in conservation and protection of this very special place we call home.  These award winners are doing big things, but remind us that if we all start small, we can accomplish great things. 

Brinkley Hutchings

Instructor and student in the water at Nature Connect in Fairhope, AL
Nature Connect

As technology continues to advance, we often find ourselves plugged into our devices, staring at phones, televisions and computer screens. Our children are no exception. While technology can be a great thing, it can also leave us disconnected to the wonders of the natural world. Brinkley Hutchings has made it her mission to connect the next generation to the outdoors. She grew up on the water, exploring creeks and rivers on both sides of the Bay. She fished with her grandfather and skied and swam. Her love of nature led her to study environmental science. She would go on to found Nature Connect Outdoor School in Fairhope. Preschoolers and kindergartners spend their days exploring the woods and splashing in the creek. Academic studies take place in a barn classroom. “Children inherently love nature,” Hutchings says. “It’s so rewarding to see the children’s eyes light up when they discover something new, to hear their laughter when they splash in the creek and to experience pride as they learn to read and write.”

In addition to the regular school year, Nature Connect offers camps throughout the summer and programs for homeschoolers. Days at the school are spent studying plants, tracking animals, telling stories and having fun getting dirty. Hutchings explains that the relationship between children and the environment is mutually beneficial. Children who spend time in nature feel less stressed, demonstrate improved academic performance and have increased physical activity. And then, those children grow up with an appreciation of conservation and become stewards of the natural world. “The other day, I saw one of our preschoolers gazing out into the woods,” Hutchings says. “I asked what she was doing, and she replied, ‘I’m just sitting here enjoying my life.’ My heart melted. That’s what I hope for: all children, here and everywhere, to be able to enjoy the beautiful world in which we live.” 

John Shell

Eagle Scout John Shell

“We can all do a better job of taking care of our Bay and rivers, and I wanted to do something that would help to both clean our water and improve the fish and crab population,”          – John Shell

When it came time for John Shell, a student at St. Paul’s Episcopal School, to complete his service project to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout, he knew he wanted to do something that would make a significant impact. He looked to his love of being out on the water and fishing. “We can all do a better job of taking care of our bay and rivers, and I wanted to do something that would help to both clean our water and improve the fish and crab population,” Shell says. 

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His online research led him to a biologist in South Florida who designed mini reefs that are tied to a wharf. The simple-to-assemble reefs are made from PVC pipes and float in the water. Once placed, they quickly begin to grow sea life. “Once the reef is loaded with oysters, barnacles and other filter feeders (typically within six months), it will filter an average of 30,000 gallons of water a day. This equates to 11 million gallons a year being cleaned for just one reef. Additionally, each mini reef acts as a nursery and grows 200 fish and 300 crabs per year,” Shell explains. He was warned that it would be a large undertaking to achieve the funding and start the reef program. But he was undeterred. Shell was able to raise the funds and deploy 100 reefs across Mobile and Perdido Bays. He sent “reef captains” to areas such as Fowl River, Dog River, Point Clear, Dauphin Island, Ono Island and Orange Beach to discover the best locations to install the reefs. Private pier owners also learned of the project and purchased their own reefs via Shell’s website. Shell met all his goals. While his part of the project may be over, the ecosystems he created continue to filter water and grow the population of crabs and fish throughout the coast, creating a legacy that far outlasts his involvement. 

Christopher Williams Sr.

Africatown Bridge
Industry near Africatown

Pastor Christopher L. Williams Sr. leads a life of service to others. He started as an Alabama State Trooper Cadet in 1981 and worked his way up in law enforcement, serving his community and rising to the role of State of Alabama public information assistant commander. In 2006, he retired from law enforcement and was called to become the pastor of Yorktown Missionary Baptist Church in the Plateau community of
Africatown. He became alarmed when, in that first year alone, he presided over 20 funerals; nearly all the deceased had died of cancer. Concerned by the rate of illness he was seeing, Pastor Williams sent out a questionnaire to his congregants. One hundred of the 150 respondents reported at least one family member with cancer. Williams believed that the long history of industrial pollution in Africatown was negatively impacting the health of the people in the community. He tirelessly met with 10 lawyers before one agreed to take the case. Due to Williams’ persistence, a settlement was eventually reached, in which community members were awarded damages for the pollutants present in the area. 

Today, Williams continues to work to create a safe environment for the people of Africatown through his involvement in Clean, Healthy, Educated, Safe, Sustainable (CHESS), the Mobile Environmental Justice Coalition (MEJAC) and the Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation (AHPT). Williams is working to create a better future for a place that has a dark past. And, while Williams reports that Africatown residents are glad that the truth of the Clotilda has finally been acknowledged, “The slave ship is not the entire story of the Africatown community. To hear the complete story, you must talk about the people who made and make up Africatown.” In other words, “It’s not the ship, it’s the people.”

Helene Hassell

Students observing marine life at the dauphin island sea lab
Dauphin Island Sea Lab

Helene Hassell has always loved the water. Growing up in Mississippi, she spent her days fishing with her dad, boating with friends and spending time on the Tombigbee River. Her father taught her about conservation at a young age. “He was a bit ahead of his time,” she says. “We always bass fished, and he became a proponent of catch and release as he became concerned about the health of the population.” After spending some time in Illinois working as an environmental analyst, Hassell and her husband relocated to the Mobile area in the late 80s to raise their children near the Bay and Gulf that she fell in love with as a child. For the past 13 years, Hassell has served as the executive director for the Dauphin Island Sea Lab Foundation where she secures funding to underwrite projects, programs and campus improvements. The funds she obtains enable the DISL to continue to provide research on coral reefs, fisheries, seagrass, marine mammals, ocean acidification and marine toxins, to name just a few. 

Since its inception in 1971, the institution has provided students of all ages with the opportunity to learn about the unique ecology of the Gulf region, and for scientists to learn about how different factors impact the environment. Hassell’s work allows this unique institution to continue its mission of ecological research and education. 

native birds in Mobile Bay

Nick Combs

“I was always taught to leave things better than I found them,” says Nick Combs, an engineering associate at Thompson Engineering. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Combs is embracing his new role of working on local stream restoration projects. A Florida native who relocated to Baldwin County to study at the Universitombsy of Alabama, Combs quickly embraced the Bay lifestyle, marrying a native and taking up shrimping with his father-in-law. The civil engineer designs streams to improve water quality and reduce the amount of sedimentation that enters the stream, and thereby larger bodies of water as well. Restoration techniques typically use natural materials such as rocks, native plants and logs to slow down stormwater flow and restore the natural curve flow of stable streams. In addition to his work on a stream in Loxley, Combs also works to improve water quality in Prichard through restoration projects on Gumtree Branch and Toulmin Springs Branch. “I am responsible for developing designs that enhance ecologic function and improve sustainability,” Combs says. “It is important to make a lasting and meaningful impact in the ecosystem for future generations.”

Coal Ash Action Group

Sallie Smith wants to protect the Bay for her young grandson, who once wrote in a poem, “I’m from the crabs and fish, the sunset and waves…” Savan Wilson is new to Baldwin County but has a long history of working to protect recreational waterways and parklands. And Diane Thomas has lived on the Bay for over 30 years, catching trout and redfish, and sharing her love of our waterways with her grandchildren.        

These three women discovered they had a common mission: to protect the Mobile-Tensaw Delta from toxic coal ash. Together, they formed the Coal Ash Action Group. Their goal is to bring awareness to ongoing pollution occurring in the Bay and to prevent disaster should a spill occur at Plant Barry. “The plant contains over 4 billion gallons of coal ash sludge and is located just 20 miles from the head of the Bay. After finding out that most of my friends don’t know about this, I felt even a small group could make a difference by educating and raising awareness,” says Wilson. And the Coal Ash Action Group has done just that. They got over 160 people to sign a petition on Earth Day alone, advocating for the ash to be removed from the banks of the Mobile River to an upland lined landfill with an impermeable cover. The organization also has volunteer speakers available to educate groups on the threat of a toxic spill. Smith summarizes the group’s motivation, “I am engaged in this campaign so future generations will be able to write their own odes to this beautiful place we call home.”

Sara Johnson

A group of people on a beach learning about how to save turtles
Sarah Johnson

A 48-mile stretch of white sandy beaches line Alabama’s Gulf Coast. From the first of May until the end of October, Share the Beach monitors the entirety of that stretch, protecting sea turtle nests, each containing 80-140 eggs. When they hatch, the organization’s volunteers redirect disoriented turtles distracted by lighting, ensuring they get the start in life they would have on a natural beach, free from development. At the helm is Sara Johnson, director of Share the Beach Coastal Foundation. Johnson started off as a volunteer in 2010 while also working in Dauphin Island Sea Lab’s K-12 education and outreach department, Discovery Hall Programs. While she had always enjoyed the outdoors, these experiences ignited her passion for marine conservation and education. When she was offered the role of director of Share the Beach, Johnson jumped at the opportunity.  

In addition to guiding the turtles, “we work to educate vacationers, property owners and full-time residents on sea turtle-friendly practices they can all adopt, such as keeping white flashlights off the beach, changing out building lighting to wildlife-friendly fixtures and bulbs, removing all items and trash from beaches at night, and flattening sandcastles and filling holes before leaving,” explains Johnson. Only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings survives to reproductive maturity. It is imperative to not let human interference further reduce that number. Other projects include beach cleanup, removal of invasive species, fundraising and educating children on conservation and protecting sea life. “Everything is connected. The health of our oceans impacts the health of our sea turtles, which can be supported by preventing trash and pollutants from entering upstream,Johnson says. “Water is home to me, and protecting and preserving it is part of my soul. I can’t imagine feeling any other way.”

watershed award images

Leslie Gahagan

Leslie Gahagan has always had a passion for protecting the Wolf Bay watershed where she grew up. She gained valuable experience by working at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and through her volunteer efforts with the Wolf Bay Watershed Watch. When the City of Foley offered her the position of environmental director, Gahagan jumped at the chance.

“Seeing the water quality effects from stormwater runoff caused me to rally behind better regulations and more nature-based practices. I also wanted to provide my community and visitors with exposure to the natural coastal back-Bay areas,” says Gahagan. She currently manages over $10 million in grants for restoration and conservation. Stream restorations protect water quality and reduce flooding during extreme weather events. Her impact expanded with the creation of Graham Creek Nature Preserve, a nearly 650-acre park on the headwaters of Graham Creek. Gahagan also develops and implements the popular Graham Creek Haunted Forest, which not only elicits scares but funding for the preserve as well. 

“From tours and field trips to recreational opportunities, the public has embraced the nature preserve. It gives me extreme pride to see their interactions,” says Gahagan. “Staff work diligently to maintain the unique habitats of bottomland forests and pitcher plant savannas. Adding holiday events and sports tourism competitions has only increased the awareness of the importance of conservation of natural coastal areas.”

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