More than 300 years ago, French explorers and settlers sailed up from the Gulf of Mexico into a vast, gaping bay and founded Fort Louis de Louisiane along a river that fed the bay. That fort later became known as the city of Mobile.
The city sat near hundreds of miles of coastline that includes the sugary white beaches of the Gulf. Surrounding the town were the brackish and fertile waters of Mobile Bay. Five rivers feed the bay to create the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. Known as “America’s Amazon,” it’s the second-largest river delta in the country.
The explorers settled in this area primarily because of the abundant water resources. But, today, those resources are in danger from the effects of coal ash, stormwater, and toxic discharges from industrial facilities and farms. The list seems endless and insurmountable, but there is hope. Much of that hope lies in the work of the staff and volunteers with Mobile Baykeeper.
Since the Mobile Baykeeper organization was founded in 1987, it has had a simple mission. It strives to provide citizens a means to protect the beauty, health, and heritage of the Mobile Bay Watershed and its coastal communities. Its mission statement includes serving as an advocate for a “thriving economy, healthy community, and high quality of life.” In a nutshell, to ensure clean water, clean air, and healthy communities.
To achieve its mission, Baykeeper uses what it calls a systematic approach to address the possible and ongoing threats to the area’s watershed. The organization researches policies and regulations that create environmental issues. Also, it collaborates with organizations, businesses, and political leaders to advocate for a healthy environment. Plus, Baykeeper educates the public and decision-makers on the need for clean water and air.
Additionally, Mobile Baykeeper monitors the water quality across the watershed. It keeps tabs on wastewater and sewer discharges and pays attention to permits that facilities acquire to discharge materials. One of the main efforts of Mobile Baykeeper is conducting regular cleanups of the waterways and helping restore ecosystems, such as oyster beds, that have been damaged or destroyed.
Programs and Campaigns
Mobile Baykeeper has about 4,500 members who participate in a variety of programs to protect the Mobile Bay watershed. One of the most successful efforts is called SWAMP, which stands for Strategic Watershed Awareness and Monitoring Program. This program trains volunteers to be water-quality monitors. The information they collect is uploaded to a database where it is used to monitor changes in water quality and identify and report pollution.
Another big project organized by the Baykeeper is their effort to restore Mobile’s oyster reefs. In 2010, the BP oil disaster decimated the reefs. Now, volunteers are working to create new reefs where oysters can thrive. They also replant seagrass, which prevents erosion during hurricanes.
Mobile Baykeeper also does work surrounding the town’s biggest celebration, Mardi Gras. Long after the two-week extravaganza has concluded, Mobile’s coastal areas are littered with debris. As the famous Mobile downpours drench the region, the waste flows into tributaries of Three Mile Creek, which then flows into Mobile Bay.
Mobile Baykeeper has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, and Thompson Engineering to do periodic cleanups of the waterway to prevent further pollution. These groups also educate the public about how the annual celebrations affect surrounding waterways. As part of their efforts to inform the public, organizations created the Swim Guide app, which advises swimmers and anglers of the water quality just about anywhere in Alabama.
The Coal Ash Problem
Turn on the news these days, and you often hear about a coal ash impoundment being breached or leeching its toxic chemicals into a waterway. These spills contaminate and kill aquatic life. The Mobile River and Mobile Bay could face the same situation, and Baykeeper considers coal ash its most urgent problem.
Alabama Power’s Barry Steam Plant has over 21 million tons of coal ash stored in a 600-acre unlined pit. Toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, and lead are seeping into the groundwater and the Mobile River at a frightening rate. Mobile Baykeeper is leading the charge to have the pit closed and sealed before it causes more damage.
What You Can Do
There are several ways you can help protect the beautiful, bountiful, and historic waters of the Mobile watershed. Start with the simple things. Many tributaries flow into Mobile Bay from Mobile and Baldwin counties and areas far north of the bay. Look around, and if you see trash, pick it up. It could flow south with stormwater.
You can also pitch in and lend a hand by volunteering for one of the many Baykeeper programs. And, of course, you should consider becoming a member. Your membership allows the organization to continue its mission to ensure that the people of Mobile and surrounding areas can enjoy clean water, clean air, and a healthy environment.
Written by Joe Cuhaj for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.