May 2, 2016

Testing the Cahaba

Nick Patterson

Nick Patterson is the editor for Weld for Birmingham.

Weld for Birmingham Nick Patterson

A nonprofit keeping watch over Alabama’s longest free-flowing river is checking its health for the benefit of those who use it.

Starting the first weekend in May, the Cahaba Riverkeeper plans to repeat a process designed to determine bacterial load in the body of water it’s named after, which has implications for those who use the popular waterway for recreation.

The third summer bacteriological testing program will continue until September, according to Cahaba Riverkeeper Executive Director Myra Crawford, who initiated the program in 2014. The nonprofit plans to test water at several sites along the Cahaba and its tributaries from Trussville southeast to Helena. The sites chosen are all spots popular for swimming and boating, Shades Creek at Jemison Park, Living River, the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge, Moon River and the Canoe the Cahaba boat launch.

“Using Environmental Protection Agency standards, counts of E. coli and other coliforms at six sites were found in 2014 to be in the ‘caution’ or ‘unsafe’ range on one or more occasions,” according to the organization’s media release announcing the testing. “One popular swimming site downriver consistently tested ‘unsafe’ in 2014 and 2015.”

In the interview that follows, Crawford talks more about the reasons for the annual testing and a recent innovation to make it possible for water sports enthusiasts and others to determine the condition of the Cahaba where they access it.

Weld: What is the goal of the bacterial testing you’re doing starting May 5?

Myra Crawford: Cahaba Riverkeeper began testing in summer 2014 to answer questions from the public asking if it were safe to swim at certain places. That information was not available. We’re filling that need and providing information on an important public health issue.

Weld: Why are these tests necessary?

Crawford: These tests provide information on the status of the water at sites that are important to the public so they may make informed decisions about their recreation use on the river. Also, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management does not conduct bacteriological tests at recreational sites, except on the coast. No one else is providing this information to the public.

Weld: Where will you be conducting the testing?

Crawford: We will conduct tests at 12 sites where the public swims or puts boats into the water.

Weld: You’ve expanded the number of sites. Why?

Crawford: After two years of testing at eight sites, we have collected considerable information on those sites. We made the decision to drop two less-used ones and to add six new ones. We also wanted to respond to calls we’ve received to add sites on the Cahaba below Helena.

Weld: Past tests have found contamination in the water. What’s been done to improve the situation?

Crawford: Contamination in the water is a changing situation. For example, heavy rains can wash in animal scat and overflow from public and private sewage systems; we can’t change that. We can, however, improve knowledge to support better decision making. We can also help in detecting undisclosed spills from wastewater treatment plants and private systems. There is no law that ensures that the public is immediately notified when a release occurs. We’ve been at the right spot at the right time twice and were able to take action.

Weld:You’re working with Coosa Riverkeeper this year. What sparked that collaboration?

Crawford: Riverkeepers are a close knit and supportive community, but our special collaboration with Coosa Riverkeeper to conduct water testing this year was sparked by a grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. That funding is allowing us to enhance our testing methods by working with Coosa to use their more sophisticated — and expensive — IDEXX system and to expand the scope of our work.

Weld: Your organization has created an app aimed at helping people know more about conditions in the water. How and when did that come about? Where can people get it?

Crawford: The Swim Guide app is a creation of the global Waterkeeper Alliance, to which all Riverkeepers belong. Many members around the world now use the free app that can be downloaded via the Internet for cell phones or tablets. Findings are posted in simple-to-interpret visual signs (red, yellow, green circles). Cahaba and Coosa Riverkeepers are also including detailed water quality information on our websites. We also post our findings each week on our Facebook and Twitter accounts. And, if we find serious situations, we alert the public media.

Weld: Is there anything else readers need to know about the upcoming testing?

Crawford: Anyone interested in a particular site, or all the sites, may also elect to have an email report of the findings sent to them each week.

For more information about the 2016 Water Quality and Bacteriological Sampling Program, or other aspects of the Cahaba Riverkeeper’s work, visit