The Black Warrior Riverkeepers: Keeping A Critical Alabama Watershed Healthy

The Black Warrior Riverkeepers protect a massive, crucial watershed in Alabama.
The Black Warrior Riverkeepers protect a massive, crucial watershed in Alabama. Tim Gage
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Covering 6,000 square miles, the Black Warrior River watershed is a crucial natural resource in Alabama. More than 16,000 miles of creeks and streams feed into the watershed, creating a rich ecosystem that supports a diversity of aquatic plants and animals. The watershed is also home to one million residents. Stretching 180 miles, the Black Warrior River also serves as a resource for thousands of anglers, paddlers, and other people seeking to have fun and relax.

While the Black Warrior River and its watershed play essential roles in Alabama, they have faced significant threats from pollution and erosion. Fortunately, the nonprofit organization Black Warrior Riverkeepers (BWR), was formed to help protect this vital waterway and watershed.

While the BWR and other concerned groups have made strides to improve the water quality, there is still much work to be done.

The Black Warrior Watershed

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a watershed is basically an area of land where water collects. It can be underground, such as an aquifer, or it can be a place where runoff water from spring rains and winter snow flows into rivers and streams. It can be as small as a simple wetland, swamp, or creek, or it can be thousands of miles wide and include the land that surrounds it, which is known as a drainage.

To understand the challenge that BWR faces, you have to consider the immense size of the watershed. The Black Warrior River is comprised of runoff from 17 Alabama counties. Stretching from Winston County to Blount County, the watershed measures 87 miles across. From top to bottom, it’s 300 miles long, beginning in north Alabama and extending southwest through Jefferson, Tuscaloosa, and Hale counties. Basically, the watershed covers a large chunk of the state, and any pollution within its boundaries affects a vast number of people and plant and animal species.

Threats to the Watershed

Alabama is a really wet state (just look at the state seal, and you’ll see a network of rivers coursing across it). While it’s one of the most biodiverse regions in the country, many of its waterways are threatened.

Across the network of rivers and streams that create the Black Warrior watershed, clear-cutting has caused excessive erosion. As a result, silt and sediment have clogged and choked tributaries, which has killed aquatic life.

Also, three coal-burning steam power plants dot the rivers. In 2007, the Miller Steam Plant emitted a significant amount of mercury into the Locust Fork River in the watershed. That was the highest amount of mercury that any plant put into a waterway in the country that year.

And speaking of coal, hundreds of coal mines across the region were abandoned and not shut down properly, causing acid seepage into the watershed. But these are only a few of the many challenges the watershed faces.

Protecting the Black Warrior

In 2001, David Whiteside and Roger Conville founded BWR, a volunteer-based organization that is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Alabama Rivers Alliance. BWR is the only group focused on protecting the vast Black Warrior watershed.

Since its inception, BWR has done a remarkable job in holding polluters accountable. While it has taken steps to make the watershed and rivers healthier, there is still much work that needs to be done as industries continually pollute the area and the state offers little environmental protection.

The Riverkeepers meet these challenges through a series of programs, including the Action Alert Response Team. This group of volunteers signs petitions and calls elected officials to influence decisions that could affect the watershed. The Riverkeepers also organize clean-ups to remove trash and debris from waterways and recycle materials whenever it’s possible. The organization also conducts Pollution Permit Research where volunteers search a national database for permitted discharges of pollution as allowed by the Clean Water Act.

How You Can Help

With so much work to do, BWR always needs volunteers, not only for the group’s major programs but also for public outreach and new member recruitment. Many people don’t realize that there is a monetary value for a nonprofit when you volunteer. BWR estimates it to be worth $24.69 per hour. They say that last year 485 volunteers donated 4,710 service hours, which totals $116,289.

Your membership dollars and donations are also needed to continue the mission. In place of (or in addition to) your monetary contribution, BWR accepts in-kind donations such as professional services or needed materials like nitrile gloves for when they work in polluted waters.

And, if you’re looking for an excellent gift for someone—or yourself—buy a bag of delicious fair trade organic Black Warrior Riverkeeper Roast, the perfect coffee to start your day. Or, shop online for BWR T-shirts and hats and proudly show the world that you support efforts to protect Alabama’s natural resources.

BWR will be the first to remind you that no matter where you live, you live in a watershed. Help not only the Black Warrior but the watershed area you live in by not spilling or dumping toxic chemicals and materials on the ground or in the trash. Recycle wherever and whatever you can to keep drains, ditches, and streams clean, and most importantly, remember—we all live downstream.

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

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