Watershed Awards: 10 Champions of Sustainability

MB’s inaugural awards honoring the efforts – big and small – to protect our local environment

Left to right: 1) Meredith Montgomery, Publisher, Natural Awakenings Magazine 2) David Nelson, Owner, Braided River Brewing Company 3) Gary Gover, President and Chairman, Earth Day Mobile Bay 4) Mark Berte, Executive Director, Alabama Coastal Foundation 5) Madison Blanchard, Project Coordinator, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program 6) David Hanna, Oyster Shell Collector, Oyster Shell Recycling Program 7) Kelley Barfoot, Outreach Coordinator, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program 8) Jason Kudulis, Restoration Project Manager, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program 9) David Spies, Board Member, Earth Day Mobile Bay 10) Suzi Spies, Board Member, Earth Day Mobile Bay 11) Roberta Swann, Director, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program 12) Tom Herder, Watershed Protection Coordinator, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program 13) Rebecca Dunn Bryant, AIA, Principal, Watershed // Photo by Matthew Coughlin

It should come as no surprise that over the past 20 years, the population of Mobile and Baldwin counties has swelled by more than 90,000 people, from just over 540,000 to nearly 632,000. The secret is well and truly out: Folks know we’ve got a good thing going down here. From our sugar-sand beaches to the labyrinthine channels of the Delta, the Bay area is brimming with vitality.

As local development marches on, sustainability has come into sharper focus. We’re situated in the heart of the North American Coastal Plain biodiversity hotspot, one of 36 global hotspots that are biologically rich but also dangerously threatened. With that reality in mind, individuals and organizations are finding innovative ways not only to promote healthy growth but also to repair past environmental damage. Well established groups like Mobile Baykeeper are leading the charge toward a future in which our towns work in harmony with our ecosystems.  At the same time, regular people everywhere are making small but important changes that deserve our applause.

We’d like to recognize 10 leaders whose work is setting the bar in local sustainability. Their efforts show that, with ingenuity and effort, a healthy future is within our grasp. These are the recipients of Mobile Bay Magazine’s 2020 Watershed Awards:

The Lodge at Gulf State Park

This Hilton property is a beacon of sustainable tourism, boasting a trio of prestigious environmental certifications. It has achieved LEED Gold status and SITES Platinum certification and is the first certified Fortified commercial building in the world.

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LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. The Fortified system measures a project’s hurricane resilience, while SITES recognizes projects that feature sustainable landscapes. “SITES was important because of The Lodge’s large site and sensitive coastal dune environment,” says Rebecca Dunn Bryant, cofounder and principal of Watershed, an architecture and consulting firm. “This is the first SITES project in Alabama and the first hotel to achieve SITES certification.”

Watershed served as the Gulf Coast Sustainability Specialist for The Lodge’s design team, which was led by Atlanta-based Rabun Rasche Rector & Reece and Lake Flato Architects in Texas.

The Lodge at Gulf State Park

The new Lodge has more rooms than its predecessor, which was wiped out during Hurricane Ivan, but it takes up a fraction of the dune environment. The landscape design revolves around rebuilding the site’s natural protective dune structure, including a natural plant palette that provides habitat for beach fauna and absorbs more than 600,000 gallons of stormwater annually, recharging the freshwater aquifer that serves the Gulf Shores area.

In terms of resource consumption, “Hotels are notorious energy hogs,” Bryant says. “By using shading to reduce heat loads, efficient lighting and cooling, and smart systems that turn off the AC when balcony doors are open, we were able to reduce energy demand by 30 percent.” The Lodge also features turtle-friendly lighting and bird-friendly glass, which has markings almost invisible to humans but clearly visible to birds. This is especially important given Mobile Bay’s position along the Mississippi Flyway, a migratory route for more than 325 bird species.

“The Lodge demonstrates how site restoration can be both a visitor amenity and a resilience strategy,” Bryant says.

Three Mile Creek

Roberta Swann

As the director of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, Roberta Swann helps to guide community leaders in their efforts to improve Alabama’s coastal resources. The NEP, a division of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, plays a role in a variety of initiatives on both sides of the Bay. The restoration of Three Mile Creek is a standout project.

“This watershed is unique, as it represents a microcosm of the City of Mobile — from the University of South Alabama at its headwaters to the Port at its mouth; from wealthy communities upstream to poorer communities in the lower reaches,” Swann says. “The population through the watershed is a melting pot of ethnicities, incomes, ages and political views.”

Until the mid-20th century, Three Mile Creek was the main drinking water source for the City of Mobile. “It has since fallen on hard times as an urbanized stormwater conveyance, failing to meet standards for even ADEM’s lowest use designation, Agricultural and Industrial,” Swann says.

Goals for the project include: improving water quality, providing access to the creek, protecting and improving the health of fish and wildlife, restoring the heritage and cultural connection between the watershed and the community and preparing for climate resilience.

Key partners include the State of Alabama, MAWSS, Alabama Power and the University of South Alabama. “The diversity of public and private sector champions has resulted in this being a priority for the City,” Swann says.

The restoration plan is operating on a 10-year target timeline, which started in 2016. Swann says that, with the momentum building around the creek’s transformation, she anticipates major improvements along the creek within the next five years.

To donate to the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, make a gift to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and note that the contribution is intended for the NEP. To volunteer with the Three Mile Creek restoration project, email [email protected].

Photo courtesy Republic Services

Alabama Coastal Foundation Oyster Recycling Program

When local restaurant-goers order up a dozen oysters, there’s a good chance they’re contributing to a program that has become instrumental to the ecological health of Mobile Bay. With the help of a National Fish and Wildlife grant in 2016, the Alabama Coastal Foundation (ACF) began recruiting restaurants to recycle their oyster shells instead of sending them to a landfill.

Their initial goal was to recruit 30 restaurants within two years and collect five acres of shells per year, but within 11 months they had met their first goal and doubled the acreage they could cover. Although the grant was complete by September of this year, the program continues to thrive due to restaurant buy-in and online “Shuck a Buck” donations.

Oyster shells collected through the program go back into Alabama waters to create oyster reefs, where new oysters grow. These reefs provide habitat for fish, shrimp, crabs, and other animals and serve as natural breakwaters that protect shorelines. Moreover, they promote a thriving oyster industry, which improves water quality: One adult oyster can filter 15 gallons of water per day.

“One of the great things about the Alabama Oyster Shell Recycling Program is that we have an advisory committee composed of restaurant representatives, nonprofits and governmental leaders to help us make decisions about the program, including on where shells go,” says ACF executive director Mark Berte. “ACF calls that approach ‘inclusive environmental stewardship,’ and we try to embed that in all of our work.”

The ACF has just written a new grant to expand the program to Birmingham restaurants, and Berte says they will do the same for Montgomery, Auburn and Tuscaloosa in the future.

To see the list of participating restaurants or make a #ShuckABuck donation, go to joinacf.org.

Braided River Brewing Co.

Love of the outdoors is deeply ingrained in the identity of Mobile’s new Braided River Brewing Co. The brand is inspired by the way the rivers of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta slow down, spread out and connect with one other.

“To us, loving our environment means not only respecting and stewarding the resources we use to brew our beer, but most importantly, preserving our beautiful Delta for future generations to enjoy,” says founder and brewmaster David Nelson.

To that end, the company’s goal is to be one of the most eco-friendly businesses in the region. They are using the Brewer’s Association’s Sustainability Benchmarking Tool to measure key performance indicators (KPIs) and to post results publicly. This tool is, “in our opinion, the most rigorous and comprehensive benchmarking tool available,” Nelson says. “By using a common set of KPIs, we are able to compare ourselves to other environmentally minded brewing operations.”

Nelson’s team is setting up shop in the Wheeler Building in downtown Mobile, and they’re finding ways to be efficient wherever possible. The mix includes LED lights, a tankless water heater, added insulation, oversized brewing tanks and a steam-powered brewhouse. They’re also aiming for LEED certification.

Nelson credits Watershed’s Rebecca Dunn Bryant for lending her expertise in benchmarking and finding ways to continue to improve. “We’re also fortunate to be partnered with the Alabama Coastal Foundation and Mobile Baykeeper,” he continues. “We’re excited to contribute to the work they do and to have them as a sounding board for our ideas and initiatives.”

The taproom is scheduled to open this month.

Marshlands where the Mobile-Tensaw Delta Meets Mobile Bay

Meredith Montgomery

Her resume includes painting portraits, conducting conservation research biology, directing a community nature center and teaching yoga. In 2010, Meredith Montgomery embarked on another branch of her career when she took the helm at the Gulf Coast edition of Natural Awakenings.

“Somehow this publishing job managed to encompass a lot of my experience and interests,” she says. “It’s focused on health and sustainability, which I am passionate about; it allows me to use my creative side; and my nonprofit and fundraising background was helpful with the sales and marketing side of the business.”

Natural Awakenings is a network of magazines published in 29 states across the U.S. Montgomery is a member of the national editorial team, which interviews experts and makes the content available to local publishers. Publishers choose which national articles best suit their market, then complement them with stories that sit close to home.

For example, Montgomery recently paired a national story on urban gardening with a local piece about a group in Mississippi that builds community gardens in urban food-insecure neighborhoods. “It’s encouraging to see that there are many progressive initiatives happening in our own backyard, and I want to shed light on those efforts and support them whenever I can,” she says.

“We try to balance inspiring stories with actionable guidance. You don’t have to install solar panels, become an outspoken activist or buy an electric car to make a difference, but everyone can conserve energy, express their opinion to local leaders and drive less.”

Woody, Jim and Shannon Walker

Plastics: miracle of modern engineering, gigantic problem for the world’s oceans. The equivalent of a full garbage truck’s worth of plastic enters the oceans every minute, according to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum. The plastics don’t biodegrade, either; they simply break down into smaller and smaller components, until they suspend in the water as microplastics.

This has implications for seafaring animals all the way down the food chain, from birds and turtles to microscopic organisms smaller than plankton.

The owners of the OK Bicycle Shop and Liquid Lounge in downtown Mobile are doing their part to curb this alarming trend. Brothers Jim and Woody Walker and Jim’s wife, Shannon, have switched from single-use plastic straws, takeout containers, cling film, and to-go cups and utensils, despite the higher cost of compostable alternatives.

They had already started using paper straws earlier this year when they connected with Plastic Free Gulf Coast, a program run by Mississippi State University with support from the NOAA Marine Debris Prevention Grant. Funds from this program helped the Bike Shop and Liquid cover the cost of compostable to-go products.

Though a few customers have walked out over the “politics” of the switch, most have been supportive. Regardless of the cost, the Walkers remain committed.

“We have to take better care of this planet,” Jim says. “Where else are we going to live?”

Photo courtesy Hartman-Cox Architects and Robb Williamson

The Federal Courthouse

Before the new federal courthouse graced St. Joseph Street in downtown Mobile, the site consisted of a parking lot, a couple of buildings and an asbestos contamination. Today, it’s the LEED Gold-certified home of the U.S. District Court, U.S. Magistrate Court, U.S. District Clerk of Court and U.S. Marshals Service.

The courthouse was built under the direction of the US General Services Administration, with Hartman-Cox Architects as design architect, URS/AECOM as architect and engineer of record, and W.G. Yates and Sons Construction Company as contractor.

“It’s a very complex building, and there were a lot of prerequisites on how things are organized and arranged that needed to be integrated with the envelope of the site, the overall design, and the elements that are sustainable,” says Lee Becker, of Hartman-Cox.

“I think one of the things that made that so successful is that we had a great team that worked on this project together. We listened to one another,” says project manager Amy Rice.

“One of the concepts we wanted to get across was a sense of place,” she continues. The design team incorporated artistic elements that pay homage to Mobile’s rivers and deltas. The window spandrels include five reeds, symbolizing Mobile’s five rivers. The interior features Italian glass mosaics of native plants by artist Jason Middlebrook. Justitia, a canoe sculpture by New Orleans-based artist Raine Bedsole, greets newcomers on the front lawn.

Exterior landscaping consists of native plants that promote pollinator activity and don’t require irrigation. Underground, collection tanks capture close to 95 percent of stormwater and allow it to percolate back into the earth, reducing runoff.

Certain project requirements pertaining to security and protocol conflicted with LEED standards. For example, LEED awards points for utilizing natural light, but due to the size of the site and courtroom design guidelines, the team had to rely instead on artificial light. Given those realities, the team focused instead on other, achievable areas of green design: sustainable site use, water efficiency and indoor environmental quality.   

Across the street, the renovation of the John A. Campbell U.S. Courthouse is scheduled to wrap up in June. Once complete, it’s expected to meet the LEED Commercial Interiors gold standard.

Bayou La Batre Seafood Waste Processing Plant

This LEED Gold-certified plant for the Gulf Coast Agricultural Seafood Cooperative in Bayou La Batre recycles 5,900 tons of shrimp and crab waste per year. Built by White-Spunner Construction, it is one of the few LEED-certified industrial sites in Alabama.

The $6 million, 13,000-square-foot facility processes and dehydrates seafood waste, then converts it into products such as animal feed and organic fertilizer. As a facility that diverts waste away from landfills and finds marketable ways to recycle it, the core concept of the plant is rooted in sustainability. However, the building also utilizes an array of green features that enhance its environmental bona fides.

Notably, the plant uses onsite renewable energy, including solar and geothermal heating. Solar collectors heat an anaerobic digester that processes the waste. The plant also captures wastewater and methane gases rather than releasing them into the environment. It uses a biomass filter to contain odors within the building.

While it is sometimes the case that sustainable choices are more expensive, in this instance the plant actually saves local processors around $250,000 per year in transportation and landfill fees.

Gary Gover

Each spring, dozens of environment-minded organizations come to roost for the day at Fairhope Municipal Park on the shores of Mobile Bay. They man educational exhibits, organize craft stations and sell environmentally conscious wares, while a roster of bands sends live music floating over the crowd.

This is Earth Day Mobile Bay, where an attendee can examine specimens of local marine life brought by the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, admire raptors and reptiles from the Alabama 4-H Science School, get gardening tips from Baldwin County Master Gardeners, and watch a collection of environmental films curated by the Mobile Bay Sierra Club, all under one tree canopy.

Several people have steered the event over the years, but today Gary Gover serves as chairman and president of the board. Joined by fellow board members Suzi and David Spies, they start preparing for the April event each January. Gary recruits exhibitors, David maintains the website and Suzi arranges the music and entertainment.

“The event has incrementally become more stable and predictable over the years,” Gover says. “For the most part, we have had the exhibitors determine how they can best support environmental goals for the community.” Now, however, the board hopes to position the event to direct attention to climate change, especially as it can be addressed at the individual, family and community levels.

To sponsor or exhibit at Earth Day Mobile Bay 2020, on April 18, go to earthdaymobilebay.org.

Dog River Clearwater Revival

When the Dog River Clearwater Revival (DRCR) was founded 25 years ago, Dog River had the dubious distinction of being on Alabama’s 303(d) list, which designates impaired or threatened waters.

“Today that is not the case,” says executive director Debi Foster. “A lot of the practices that allowed that kind of degradation are no longer permitted.”

However, the group’s work is far from complete. “The biggest threat to the health of Dog River is sedimentation,” Foster says. Urbanization in the western suburbs of Mobile has affected the headwaters of many of the watershed’s creeks. “The continued march of asphalt west has increased the flow of stormwater into a drainage system that is unfiltered.”

At 95 square miles, this is the largest urban watershed in the Mobile Bay area. Its estuary is the cradle of a rich mix of marine life. “Communities have made their living out of these waters,” Foster says. “We’re known for our seafood all over the world. The sustainability of our culture depends on our ability to retain the way of life that’s associated with these estuaries.”

In addition to monitoring water quality, engaging with city and county leaders, and attacking the river’s chronic litter problem, the DRCR also promotes community connections to the water through its bike trail and scenic blueway. “If you are out on a boat and looking at the wetland at eye level, it gives you a different perspective than if you’re passing over it on the interstate,” Foster says. “Go spend a quiet day unplugged, unconnected, and see where our roots came from.”

To donate or volunteer with Dog River Clearwater Revival, go to dogriver.org. The 2020 Dog River Mud Bottom Revival Music Festival will be on April 26.

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