Drought negatively impacting Black Warrior River


CW / Abbie Collins

Bennett Stansell

Environmentalists are becoming increasingly concerned that the major tributaries of the Black Warrior River are suffering immensely from the negative impacts of a historic Alabama drought affecting over 98 percent of the state.

Alabama has not experienced a drought as extreme as the one that is currently drying out the state since 2007. It has been so severe in Northeast and Central Alabama that Gov. Robert Bentley signed a Drought Emergency Declaration for 46 counties in the region. In DeKalb and Cherokee counties, the drought has caused water flow in one of the state’s most iconic rivers, the Little River, to completely stop in some places. 

The drought is now intensifying in Birmingham and surrounding areas, taking a damaging toll on the Locust and Mulberry Forks of the Black Warrior River. 

“We are seeing parts of the Black Warrior River approach near record, if not record lows,” said Mitch Reid, program director at Alabama Rivers Alliance. “The Locust and Mulberry Forks of the river are particularly low.” 

Low water levels in the forks can be problematic in many ways, according to Nelson Brooke of the Black Warrior Riverkeepers. Brooke said the forks are already experiencing algal blooms and could experience large fish kills if current dry conditions persist.

“With the current conditions and projections, we could see even more diminished flows and in turn fish kills and die-offs of other aquatic life that inhabit the Black Warrior,” Brooke said.

While the Locust and Mulberry Forks of the Black Warrior River have felt major impacts of the drought, the main body of the river has only seen decreased water levels so far. Reid attributes this to the Black Warrior River being heavily controlled by a system of core locks. However, Reid said he does believe that if the drought continues for much longer, the main body of the Black Warrior will suffer just as its tributaries are.

“The river is basically as low as it can go and then still be able to maintain the function of the core locks.” Reid said. “In many ways, we are just starting to see the impacts of the drought hit the Black Warrior.”

At a time when the Black Warrior River’s water levels are lower than average, Brooke warns businesses that rely on it to discharge their waste to be extremely cautious.

“We have particular concerns with facilities who are allowed to pollute the Black Warrior. It is a very important time for these facilities to take extra care and make sure they are properly treating their water and only discharging when necessary,” he said. “The impact of water pollution in the Black Warrior will be much more intense because of the low water levels.”

The Black Warrior River carries out many functions in Alabama’s ecosystems. Its watershed is home to multiple endangered species of fish, mussels and turtles. It also is a source of drinking water for Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Bessemer.

Even though the drought has already had serious effects on Alabama rivers, the Alabama Rivers Alliance believes the state government and Gov. Bentley have not taken any steps to combat it besides declaring a drought emergency in 46 counties. 

Reid finds the government’s lack of preparedness to be especially frustrating. 

“There is really no state response plan,” he said. “The state declared a drought emergency without any follow up.”

The Alabama River Alliance is now calling on citizens to reach out to Gov. Bentley and their state representatives and demand that action be taken to help protect Alabama’s rivers, including the Black Warrior, from the drought.

“The time for action is yesterday,” Reid said. “Now it’s time for Gov. Bentley to intervene with a drought management plan.”

Reid said he believes that the situation could get worse before it gets better. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is projecting the persistence and spread of drought in the Southeast throughout the winter. 

Nonetheless, Reid has not given up hope yet. He asserts that if people act now, they can greatly reduce the harmful impact that the drought will have on the Black Warrior and its tributaries. Reid encourages citizens to cut down on outdoor water use and to keep track of the drought using the United States Drought Monitor.