By John Felsher
After ending a career in the U.S. Army that took him all over the world, Dick Bronson retired as a colonel and moved to the shores of pristine Lake Martin near Alexander City more than 30 years ago. While enjoying the outstanding recreational opportunities offered in eastern Alabama, the colonel also noted something he didn’t like – textile dye wastewater overloading a municipal wastewater treatment plant and entering the lake.
“When we moved to the lake, we saw an environmental problem and tried to address it through normal channels,” Bronson recalls. “The plants had a permit to do what they were doing at the time, but we felt that what they were doing was not proper. We went to the city council and mayor before going to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Several lawsuits went through the court system before it was ultimately solved to our satisfaction.”
A group of citizens formed Lake Watch with Bronson as president. Eventually, the group grew to about 300 members focused on preserving water quality in Lake Martin and associated streams. Eventually, Lake Watch members linked up with Alabama Water Watch (AWW), becoming charter monitors working to change how the plants discharged water into the lake.
“Alabama Water Watch was the catalyst for our scientific knowledge,” Bronson says. “AWW was looking for a group to be trained as water monitors. We became the first group they trained as monitors.”
Established in 1992 to improve both water quality and water policy through citizen monitoring and action, AWW trains volunteers to serve as monitors all over Alabama. The organization also collects and disseminates water quality data from state waters. Alabama contains 40 major lakes and numerous small systems. About eight percent of the surface water in the 48 contiguous states runs through the more than 77,000 miles of Alabama streams.
“Alabama Water Watch is a national model for citizen involvement in watershed stewardship,” says Dr. Bill Deutsch, the program director. “We use EPA-approved plans with a community-based approach to train citizens to monitor conditions in their local waters. Alabama has some of the best water in the country. Most of our water is in relatively good shape, but unfortunately, we also have problems in some areas.”
Since 1992, AWW trained about 6,000 volunteers to conduct scientific water quality monitoring. Coordinated by Auburn University, these volunteers across the state sample waters near their homes and periodically upload data to the AWW website.
“Our goal is to have a citizen monitor on every water body in Alabama,” Deutsch says. “Almost all of the major lakes in the state have at least one active water monitoring group. We’ve conducted more than 1,500 water quality monitoring workshops and hold about 70 to 90 sessions per year throughout the state. Workshops are free and earn continuing education credit with Auburn University.”
These monitors physically and chemically test water several ways to determine pollution levels and sources. They test for the presence of harmful bacteria and evaluate the system health by monitoring such biological indicators as aquatic invertebrates while looking for long-term trends that may affect that lake or stream.
“We promote understanding of water quality issues by teaching citizens of every background to do simple, but credible scientific water monitoring,” says Mona Dominguez, AWW monitor coordinator. “We currently have nearly 400 active monitors at more than 2,500 sites. Our database has more than 70,000 records that tell us about water quality in Alabama. We encourage citizens to use their understanding of water data to educate other citizens, protect and restore watersheds and to advocate for changes in water policy.”
Like Bronson and his group at Lake Martin, AWW helped others solve problems in their areas. For instance, if local monitors find a bacteria problem in a city lake, they might work with municipal officials to determine the source of the problem and take corrective action.
“It’s not just collecting data,” Deutsch explains. “We have to interpret data to determine if the water quality is getting better or worse and why. People take the information we gather and use it to educate people in their communities, restore and protect water and affect state policy.”
Sometimes, citizens use AWW data not to correct a problem, but to highlight good news. Citizens living near Wolf Bay on the Gulf of Mexico in Baldwin County wished to upgrade their water quality classification. Volunteers with the Wolf Bay Watershed Watch successfully used AWW data to convince state authorities to upgrade the bay to Outstanding Alabama Water status, the highest classification level.
“Getting the classification upgraded to Outstanding Alabama Water provides the bay with extra protection against new sources of pollution and helps promote the area for tourism,” Dominguez explains.
Similarly, Bronson’s group wanted to upgrade Lake Martin. When they determined that the OAW classification rules did not apply to reservoirs, they convinced state officials to establish an entirely new designation called Treasured Alabama Lake. On Dec. 28, 2010, Gov. Bob Riley signed an executive order creating the designation and declaring Lake Martin the first lake so designated.
“We knew the lake was clean,” Bronson says. “We just didn’t know how clean it was. The AWW folks gave us the credibility to be able to speak in scientific terms and show people how clean the lake is so we could convince the authorities it’s worth protecting. The Treasured Alabama Lake classification raises the bar for water quality standards and gives the lake more protection.”
Alabama Water Watch relies heavily upon volunteers to accomplish its mission. It also receives money from various federal, state and private sources. However, with the fiscal situation at both the state and federal levels, much of that funding evaporated recently. Concerned citizens can help by joining the AWW Association and make tax-deductible donations.
“Our job is to tell the AWW story and provide support for the program so that people in Alabama understand the value that AWW has to the future of the state,” explains Michael Kensler, the association president. “Water is an irreplaceable resource. AWW provides a service to the state that no one else does to help people understand what’s going on with water resources in Alabama.”
The association currently lists about 200 members. People can join for as little as $25 a year. For more details on how to join, visit www.alabamawaterwatch.org/get_involved. For more information on Alabama Water Watch, call 888-844-4785 or 334-844-9323. Online, see www.alabamawaterwatch.org.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management classifies waterways into seven Water Use Classifications.
1. Outstanding Alabama Water: The highest classification for waters with exceptional recreational or ecological significance.
2. Public Water Supply: Can be used for drinking water or food processing if treated and filtered.
3. Swimming and Other Whole Body Water-Contact Sports: Safe for swimming and other recreation.
4. Shellfish Harvesting: Safe for people to gather shellfish and crustaceans to eat.
5. Fish and Wildlife: Adequate to support fish, aquatic life and wildlife.
6. Limited Warmwater Fishery: Can be used for agricultural irrigation, livestock watering and industrial cooling.
7. Agricultural and Industrial Water Supply: Best used for agricultural irrigation, livestock watering and industrial cooling.
A new designation, Treasured Alabama Lake, pertains to lakes that meet exceptional standards for cleanliness, water quality and nutrient enrichment.
For more information on water classifications, see www.alabamawaterwatch.org/resources/general_faqs.html/title/what-are-the-different-alabama-water-use-classifications.