PROTECTING YOUR DRINKING WATER

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.

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