Mobile Bay Magazine’s 5th Annual Watershed Awards

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

Left to right: 1) Michael Williams, Salty Pirate’s Seafood 2) Kerry Mitchell, Salty Pirate’s Seafood 3) Morgan Counts, Dog River Clearwater Revival 4) John O’Melveny Woods, Clean Water Alabama 5) Chandra Wright, Gulf State Park 6) Don Bates, The Osprey Initiative 7) Chloe Ray, Mobile Baykeeper 8) Neil C. Johnston,Hand Arendall Harrison Sale LLC 9) Mary Kate Brown, The Nature Conservancy NOT PICTURED: Dip McMillian, Dippi Outdoors, Robin C. Roberts, litter warrior and Ramsey Sprague, Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition. Opening Photo by Matthew Coughlin.

Coastal Alabama’s waterways are as diverse as the people who love them. Baldwin and Mobile counties contain streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, bayous and the Gulf of Mexico. Our H20, salty or fresh, teams with fish and wildlife from tadpoles to sharks. But do not be fooled by tranquil waves. 

Nature’s gift requires human endurance and hard work. Many men and women dedicate their time and talents to the quest for a vibrant environment.  Toiling away at tasks large and small, these 11 Watershed Award winners make coastal Alabama a better place to live, work and recreate. Just add water.

Morgan Counts

Morgan Counts

Mobile’s Morgan Counts lives on Halls Mill Creek. She grew up tubing the creeks, playing in, learning about and loving the waters of home. Today she works to protect those very same tributaries and more. Morgan works with approximately 300 guardians of the environment, collectively known as Dog River Clearwater Revival (DRCR). 

The group protects and advocates for the Dog River Watershed, which prompted our first question to Morgan: “What is a watershed?”

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“A watershed is the land area surrounding a stream,” she answers. “Everything inside the land area drains into that flow.” The streams, rivers and creeks of the Dog River Watershed covers 95 square miles, effecting most of the City of Mobile.

“It is important to note that Dog River Clearwater Revival covers more than just Dog River,” she adds. “Our mission is to create a safe, clean, accessible watershed area, the entire watershed, not just Dog River.” 

Formed in 1994, DRCR is a grassroots movement with tasks including measuring water quality and designing, implementing and monitoring water cleanliness. Counts has been the group’s executive director for three years. “But the work and accomplishments we have are because of great volunteers, not me,” she says. “They are incredible.”

She notes progress in cleaning coastal waters, including six grant-funded, procured massive litter traps which remove thousands of pounds of trash every month. Other DRCR projects include coastal cleanup campaigns, educational programs, and activities promoting water world awareness. 

“Everyone needs to understand that our waterways are connected,” she says. Streams flow into Dog River, which flows into Mobile Bay, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Counts stresses the importance of stopping trash and construction site sediment which flows downstream from almost all parts of Mobile. She notes that we are all in this together, “What is good for Dog River is good for Mobile Bay and beyond.”

Don Bates

Don Bates

In 2017, Don Bates participated in a volunteer cleanup to remove litter from Mobile’s One Mile Creek tributary when an idea hit. He realized, “We need to develop a low cost, low maintenance device, that intercepts litter, not just bags full, but with the capacity to catch thousands of pounds of trash continuously.” And so, he did.

The “Litter Gitter,” a floating aluminum device the size of a small boat, was created. Bates left his employer, Thompson Engineering, and created his own company, The Osprey Initiative. 

Seven years later, The Litter Gitter gets around, and so do Bates’ other machines. Based in Mobile, The Osprey Initiative serves Mobile and Baldwin Counties, 18 U.S. states, Canada and Mexico. His customer base includes 40 to 50 municipalities, 25 nonprofits and 25 corporate clients. 

According to local environmental advocacy groups, The Osprey Initiative’s traps remove thousands of pounds of trash from the Mobile Watershed monthly.

“My team deserves the credit,” he notes. “They are in the water almost every day. We look at it as not how many pounds of litter did I pick up, but how many miles of wetlands am I protecting by keeping litter out of it.”

He and his team fight the usual suspects. “Plastic bottles are not as difficult to collect because it stays in its form,” the business owner explains. “The hard one in our fight is Styrofoam. It breaks down into little pieces that break off when touched.”

A Louisiana native and resident of Fairhope, Bates grew up in a family that loved hunting, fishing and watersports. As a child, he frequently visited Mobile for fishing and other outdoor activities. The city by the Bay made an impression.

“I don’t think I could have started my business anywhere but Mobile,” he says. “We had so much support. Mobile has a lot of people who care for the bay and its water systems. We are glad to be part of it.”

Chandra Wright

Chandra Wright

When asked when Gulf Coast marine life became an integral part of her life, Chandra Wright smiles, “I’ve always had it. Moving here just embraced it.”

“Here” is the Gulf Shores area, where Wright is director of Environmental and Educational Outreach for the Lodge at Gulf State Park and the Learning Campus at Gulf State Park. In addition, she is a team leader for Share the Beach, a volunteer-based group that protects sea turtles. 

She also practiced law for 17 years and considers herself “a recovering attorney.” “After law school I wanted to try SCUBA diving,” the former lawyer recalls, and she did. “I will never forget seeing the magic of the underwater world. Had I seen this before going to law school, I might not have gone to law school.” 

Eventually, she quit the law practice. Wright moved to Gulf Shores in 2008. Two years later, the B.P. Oil Spill changed her life. “It was my wake-up call to get out of the divorce law business and into environmental stewardship,” she recalls. 

Today she advocates for what she loves — coastal beaches and marine life. “The biodiversity is amazing here; it is one of the largest in the world.”

Wright believes education is a key to environmental good stewardship. “It is surprising how many people do not know about our coastal ecosystems and the amazing biodiversity we have here,” she adds.

Her office window at the Lodge at Gulf State Park overlooks Lake Shelby. She occasionally takes breaks and ventures to the property’s beach side. “It reminds me of why I am here and how lucky I am to do this,” she says about the nine ecosystems covering 6,150 acres of Gulf State Park. “I am fortunate to be here and tell our story.”

Robin C. Roberts

Robin C. Roberts

Robin C. Roberts walks five miles a day, five to seven days a week, in any weather condition, collecting trash. He uses no tools, opting instead to continuously bend over, hand collecting cigarette butts, empty cans and assorted trash along the way. He is 73 years old.

His mission started a few years back, on a windy fall day. Roberts was walking in West Mobile’s Hillcrest Road area when a plastic bag flew by. “I reached out and caught it,” the Mobile resident recalls. “I knew this bag could possibly end up in a storm drain or eventually make its way to Mobile Bay,” he says. “So here I am with a bag in my hands and since I’m walking anyway, I decided to pick up litter, place it in the bag along the route.” When he returned home, his bag was full, potentially preventing a plugged storm drain or wildlife hazard. “I felt pretty good about that.”

He has collected trash in the Hillcrest Road area ever since. On today’s January interview, Mobile is 21 degrees. No one is on the streets — except Roberts. 

“This is what I do,” he says. “It is a gift to my neighbors.” 

Roberts also adds, “What I do is a little thing, but what if a thousand people did this? We would pick up a million pounds of litter a year.”

He also notes the health benefits, and has a streak going. “272 days of 10,000 steps each day for seven days a week. Add that to continuously bending over, picking up trash, keeps you in good shape.”

Roberts closes with sage advice about his litter collection and exercise program, noting, “You do this every day and you will be leaner and your world will be cleaner.” 

Mary Kate Brown

Mary Kate Brown

Recently promoted to assistant coastal programs director of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Mary Kate Brown’s team turns lots of dirt and enhances the lives of so many people, plants and animals alike. She works to elevate the quality of life in communities, particularly those lapped by waves. “Thriving communities that live on the water are important to us,” Brown says. “We work on projects that preserve coastal habitats while boosting the quality of life of the people living there.”

Her tasks include procuring contractors, working with municipalities, interfacing with engineers. Her job site may be on Dauphin Island, Grand Bay and more. “It’s been a busy three months,” she notes.

One project of pride is Bayou La Batre’s Lightning Point, a grassy marshland with winding creeks and wildlife friendly habitats. Six years ago, it was not here. “It was in danger of erosion,” recalls Brown. 

She was part of the team that implemented natural and native materials rather than artificial barricades to the Bayou La Batre waterfront project. Over 240,000 cubic yards of sediment was used to build 40 acres of coastal habitats. 

And thus came Lightning Point. Standby for more.

“First you must win over the community,” says Brown about critical first steps in restoration projects. “I think one of the biggest hurdles is uncertainty. Small communities have to put their trust in us and building that trust is sometimes tough.”

The director continues, “We understand their concerns and engage them in the conversation. We want the townspeople to jump over the trust hurdle and join us for the ride.”

The rewards are many. “When you see something come to fruition like Lightning Point,” she says, “and know that, in a small way, I helped these people love where they live, it is a very rewarding feeling.”

John O’Melveny Woods

John O’Melveny Woods

Back in his childhood days, John O’Melveny Woods attempted to toss an empty can into the trash. The throw was intercepted by his parents who said, “Hey Johnny, let’s put that in the recycle bin.” Today, John recalls it was a “trickle-up experience,” meaning if you teach a child early about the importance of our environment, they will remember it as adults — just as Woods does.

 About 17 years ago, the California resident, author, publisher and film producer moved to the Gulf Coast. He is president of Clean Water Alabama (CWA), a nonprofit group dedicated to finding ways to keep our waterways clean and educating everyone on the importance of doing so.

In 2023, CWA created an activity book and coloring book designed to teach children the importance of our waters. The books were distributed to every student fourth through sixth grade in Baldwin County Public schools. “It was quite an accomplishment and we are doing it again this year,” he notes. 

He stresses that CWA reaches out to adults too. “We are non-threatening,” he says. “We talk with different political parties and others for education and conversation. We stress that together, we can make a difference.”

He adds, “I have talked to people who used to take the ferry across Mobile Bay, from Mobile to Baldwin County. They remember how from the ferry one could look down and view grass on the Bay’s floor.”

“The Bay is still beautiful,” Woods notes, “but we want people to question, ‘What can we do that makes a difference that, in time, will make the Bay the lovely place it used to be? It won’t happen overnight, but it can happen.”

Dip McMillian

Dip McMillian

Don’t let their personal electronic devices fool you. Kids love the great outdoors. But many children never have opportunities to experience our water world. Dip McMillian brings both together. 

The Loxley resident and fishing guide operates “Dippi Outdoors,” a nonprofit charity in which he and his team share expertise in crappie fishing with children from 5 years old to high school age. Held in August, the annual tournament started six years ago with five participants. Last year’s event had 133 participate. 

McMillian also hosts adult fishing activities with money raised used to fund his August children’s event. He volunteers his time so no child pays a fee to fish.

“My job is to teach kids how to fish, hunt and respect our environment,” the crappie fishing expert says about the outdoor event held at Stockton’s Hubbard’s Landing and beyond. “I believe it is important for children to learn about and spend time in the great outdoors.”

McMillian continues, “These children are our future. If kids do not learn about what we have here, it will go to waste. We need young people to protect our environment.”

He notes other positives too. “The woods and water keep kids out of trouble.”

Though McMillian is an expert fisherman, his students are not. “Lots of them have never touched a rod and reel before,” he adds. “We estimate 80% of our ‘Dippi Outdoors’ kids have had no outdoor experiences … They have never seen the beauty of our waters, the spectacle of ancient cypress trees, the amazing diverse wildlife, or the history of our delta. We give them the opportunity to see and experience all of the above.”

At the end of the day, children reel in the lines, examine their catch and collect memories of a lifetime. McMillian notes, “When you see the excitement on a child’s face while hooking a really big fish, it makes it all worth it. They won’t see that on a video game. There is no app for that.”

Photo by Kathy Hicks

Chloe Ray

A Spanish Fort native, Chloe Ray has enjoyed the waters of Baldwin and Mobile Counties for most of her life. “I have loved nature since childhood,” the Mobile resident says. “My parents would take me to the Bay, dad took me fishing and I loved it. Today, I am grateful to have a career protecting the waters I grew up on.”

Chloe Ray

She protects those tributaries as a field investigations team lead for Mobile Baykeeper. Chloe searches for pollution problems and demands answers. It’s all about a body of water’s four indicators of health: 

1. Swimming safety — is it safe to play in the water?

2. Fish consumption — is it safe to eat?

3. Sea grass — growing or diminishing?

4. Oyster populations — more or less?

The team’s findings are reported to the public. “There is always work to be done,” says Ray, about investigating the cleanliness of area waters. There are also positives. 

 “I believe people are starting to realize more that we need to be advocates for the environment. Some groups, such as the shrimping and fly-fishing communities, are doing good work at being stewards of the water.” 

In addition, she monitors agencies, holding them accountable as she inspects proposed permits. “We work with everyone as much as we can,” she adds, about utility companies, factories, and other companies, interfacing with Mobile Bay and associated waters. 

But they are also tested by high standards in accordance with permits and laws. Ray notes, “The water deserves it and so do we.”

Neil C. Johnston

Neil C. Johnston

Attorney Neil C. Johnston Sr. grew up with two influencers that changed his life: the outdoors and the law. As a boy, the youngster honed skills with frequent visits to the Mobile Delta and other wilderness adventures. In addition, he was exposed to law at an early age through his father’s law practice. As an adult, Johnston combined the law and the land, becoming an environmental lawyer, advocate and teacher.

“Growing up on the Delta, fishing, hunting and exploring, I learned never take anything for granted, especially our waters,” he says. “What happens, good or bad, on the watershed affects others downstream.”

The lawyer adds, “Today, my practice includes land owners and companies of all facets in conservation, legal appliance and regulation issues, which change every day, it seems.”

A practicing attorney with Hand Arendall Harrison Sale LLC since 1978, Johnston’s numerous awards include being named the Mobile Environmental Lawyer of the Year for 2011 and 2014 by Best Lawyers, the 2009 Community Partner Award from Partners for Environmental Progress in 2003, the National Wetlands Award from the Environmental Law
Institute in Washington, D.C. and many more.

He is also passionate about teaching children environmental awareness. “I started working with youngsters after noticing their school curriculum often discussed environmental matters at the end of the book and the teachers never got around to it.” But he did.

Johnston helped developed two award-winning CDs for children, teaching environmental importance: “Ribbit’s Big Splash,” (Ribbit is a frog) and “Skeeter’s Wild Adventure” (Skeeter is a racoon). In addition, he conducted hands-on programs for children, including touch and feel exercises with oysters, rabbit fur, turtle shells and other wildlife remnants. “Their eyes would light up,” Johnston recalls about teaching nature to the young. 

During his career Neil also developed seminars and programs for adults, but, according to him, “Children are more fun to work with,” he laughs, noting thar, “Unlike many adults, kids get it.”

Kerry Mitchell & Michael Williams

Sunrise on the Gulf and Facebook explodes. “The catch is good,” posts Salty Pirate’s Seafood of Dauphin Island as its 32-foot shrimp boat heads to shore. Heeding the social media call, customers gather, waiting to purchase shrimp, fresh — as in, hours earlier they were still swimming fresh. Also waiting is Kerry Mitchell, wife of Michael Williams, who pilots the boat. 

For Mitchell and Williams, commercial fishing is good but could be better and they work to make “better” a reality.

“We, and many other states, joined the Louisiana Shrimp
Association’s Antidumping Petition to stop allowing so much imported shrimp into our markets,” says Mitchell. “Shrimp from Vietnam, Indonesia, Ecuador and other countries account for 94% of the market. Local shrimpers account for 6%.” 

Last year, concerned commercial fishers formed the Alabama Commercial Fishing Association, LLC, a non-profit. Mitchell notes, “We created the group to give us a voice, to help our industry and to assist commercial fishermen in Alabama. We are tired of being overregulated … oyster reefs have so many regulations, we hardly have time to work.”

Mitchell also says that Federal and State regulators are quick to issue rules, regulations, restrictions and fishing boundaries, but never solicit input from those effected most — commercial fishermen.

She also oversees environmental plans for their group, including grant applications and other funding for establishing reefs, protecting oyster beds and nurturing shrimp populations. 

“Nobody cares more about the marine environment than those whose livelihoods depend on it,” notes Mitchell. “An environment conducive to healthy shrimp, oysters and fish is vital to us. Fishing is our heritage and what our communities were founded on. When our commercial fishing does well so does our local economy.” Mitchell and Williams help make all of the above happen.

Cochrane-Africatown USA Bridge, Mobile, Alabama

Ramsey Sprague

Ramsey Sprague

Ramsey Sprague’s first trip to Mobile was on a cross country bicycle tour in January 2011 during which Mobile’s rich history was shared by friends, including local historian and author, the late Jay Higginbotham. Sprague’s ride through Africatown across the Africatown Bridge was especially memorable.

In 2013, he returned to Mobile to volunteer with Africatown’s Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC). “I was moved by their resolve to fight against the interests of polluting developers,” recalls Sprague, a native environmentalist born in Louisiana and raised in Texas.

His work supporting MEJAC’s mission to “engage and organize with Mobile, Alabama’s most threatened communities in order to defend the inalienable rights to clean air, water, soil, health and safety; to promote environmental justice; and to take direct action when the government fails to do so, ensuring community self-
determination” continues to this day. In 2015, Sprague accepted an invitation to become MEJAC’s volunteer President.

The group’s victories have included defeating a proposal for an above ground petrochemical tank farm which would store and transmit more oil products in Africatown. They have also successfully challenged several federal air pollution permits throughout Mobile County and have strengthened zoning code requirements for industrial developments across Mobile. The list continues.

“The Africatown Safety Zone was a big achievement of ours,” Sprague notes. “It ensures the neighborhood’s residential properties will remain residential at least for the foreseeable future. This has been a persistent fear among residents.”

Ramsey is a strong advocate of Environmental Justice in Mobile and Alabama. When Africatown residents have environmental concerns, Sprague responds. “I take my role, facilitating the concerns of residents who have felt disenfranchised, very seriously.”

He notes that for too long Africatown residents and communities in similar circumstances have felt they had no voice in their environmental destiny and for good reason — it was true. Today that is changing, slowly, but surely.

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