PROTECTING YOUR DRINKING WATER
On August 24, 2023, the Birmingham Water Works Board fulfilled a more than 20-year-old promise to legally protect the source of metro Birmingham’s drinking water.
Cahaba Riverkeeper and Cahaba River Society, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, reached an agreement with the Board and Alabama’s Attorney General to protect 7,000 acres of forested land around Lake Purdy, the Little Cahaba River, and the Cahaba River from development that could impact drinking water. Today, the Jefferson County Circuit Court approved that agreement.
The protected land is a natural buffer filtering stormwater runoff, providing clean drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people, and recharging the water supply while keeping treatment costs low for all water users.
“We now have a strong tool that engages the community with the Water Board in long-term protection of the land and drinking water source,” said Cahaba River Society Executive Director Beth Stewart. “We appreciate that the Birmingham Water Works Board and the Attorney General worked with us to find a solution that benefits all.”
“We are relieved that after more than 20 years, the Birmingham Water Works Board has finally honored the commitment they made to legally protect this land,” said David Butler, Cahaba Riverkeeper and Staff Attorney. “We have fought hard to defend the right of ratepayers to clean, affordable drinking water, and will continue to do so moving forward.”
“This is a legacy agreement that all parties should be proud of,” said Sarah Stokes, Senior Attorney for SELC. “This land will be legally protected for generations to come.”
The agreement is set out in a consent judgement which requires restrictive covenants that will be filed in Jefferson County and Shelby County Probate Courts in 60 days. The restrictive covenants will “run with the land” for 75 years, or for as long as the Board uses Lake Purdy and the Cahaba River as a water source. Even if the Board sells the land, it is still protected. Cahaba Riverkeeper and Cahaba River Society also have a legal right to enforce all protections on the land and perform regular inspections. Any changes to the settlement must be requested in court and approved by a judge.
In 2001, the Board and AG entered into a settlement agreement requiring the parties to establish a conservation easement to protect the watershed from harmful development. The agreement also allowed ratepayers to enforce it. After attempting for three years to persuade the Board to record legal protections on the land, SELC, on behalf of Cahaba River Society and Cahaba Riverkeeper, filed suit in 2021 to compel the Board to act. In 2022, the Alabama Supreme Court unanimously sided with the conservation groups and ruled that the Board failed to adequately protect the land as required by the 2001 settlement agreement.
You can find more details on the settlement agreement here.
Settlement secured protecting clean, safe drinking water for metro Birmingham
Cahaba River Society & Cahaba Riverkeeper, represented by Southern Environmental Law Center, file legal action to permanently protect Birmingham Water Board lands
On Monday, March 8, 2021, CRS and partners filed a legal action to ensure that the Birmingham Water Works Board fulfills a 20-year-old commitment they made to permanently protect their forested lands around the Cahaba River, Lake Purdy, and Little Cahaba River, a main drinking water source for the Birmingham metro area. If Cahaba water is degraded and treatment costs rise, every Water Board customer has to pay more for drinking water.
CRS takes legal action as a last resort, and this will only be our 4th in over 30 years. That underscores how essential we believe this action is in order to safeguard healthy, abundant, and affordable drinking water from development that could degrade it and cause higher costs for residents and businesses.
CRS has a long relationship with the Water Board, and we have partnered to educate the metro area’s youth about their drinking water source. After three years of trying to find a cooperative solution with the Water Board, they have made it clear that legal action will be necessary to resolve this crucial matter. We are not seeking a penny of financial benefit from this action. We simply want the Water Board to fulfill its legal commitment to protect the land that the ratepayers have invested in, an investment that protects everyone’s drinking water.
Protected Forests = Clean Water = Public Treasure
Natural forests play a key role to cleanse and store rain and recharge our drinking water sources. Development increases runoff and pollution, reduces the available water supply during drought, and increases the cost to treat your drinking water. CRS promotes development design that can reduce these impacts, but the clean water value of forests, once lost, cannot be recreated.
That is why the Birmingham Water Works Board owns about 6,000 acres of forested land around Lake Purdy, the Little Cahaba River (which brings clean Lake Purdy water to the Cahaba), and the mainstem of the River from Highway 280 to the drinking water intakes. This is ratepayer-funded property bought over generations to protect our drinking water. There will always be great pressure to develop this public land, and over the years, sales for development have been attempted and completed.
The Water Board’s land protection commitment
Back in 2001 there was an attempt to sell and privatize the Water Board, and the Alabama Attorney General sued on behalf of the ratepayers. In the legal settlement agreement, the Water Board agreed to place conservation easements over these lands to permanently protect them from development that could harm the water source. Sixteen years passed without action on this commitment.
Thankfully, community residents and the Birmingham City Council pressed the matter, and in 2017 the Board recorded “a conservation easement agreement.” However, this did not create true permanent conservation easements under Alabama law. The restrictions sunset in 2051. The Water Board and Alabama Attorney General can amend the easements at any time for any purpose. There is no independent public interest group to ensure the land protections are followed, and the restrictions are vaguely worded, allowing “any other activity …to carry out the purposes of the Water Works Board.”
Our legal action aims to help the Birmingham Water Works Board complete its commitment to protect your water and keep water costs as affordable as possible.
What you can do: