Exploring the Cahaba River: An Interview with Taylor Steele
Stewardship of the environment demands an understanding of what is “healthy”, and what is not.
In the fall of 2003, a group of students from Hoover High School in Hoover, Alabama, undertook a macroinvertebrate study of a portion of Alabama’s Cahaba River. Accompanying this group were Janet Ort, science educator at Hoover High School, and Taylor Steele, an environmental educator and naturalist.
Taylor SteeleEnvironmental Educator and NaturalistWe spoke with Taylor about this particular study, about the Cahaba River in general, and, more importantly, about the future of this fascinating river, and the impact of the system’s health on future generations of environmentalists, educators, and civic leaders.
The Little Cahaba River is the largest tributary that flows into the Cahaba River. As it meanders through Jefferson County, and five other counties in the state of Alabama, it changes a great deal in its appearance and its complexity.The flow of the Cahaba River through Jefferson County, is considerably narrower than in lower parts. It’s surrounded by the terrain of the Ridge Valley, with high, steep slopes that are heavily vegetated with hardwood and mixed pine forest. The earth is a cobbled, rocky substrate.The river flows faster near the headwaters, but widens as it meanders through the fall line, creating beautiful, massive sandy shoals. Perhaps one of the most amazing facts about the Cahaba River is that it flows through the most populous county in Alabama, and through the largest metropolitan city, Birmingham. It truly has a connection to the people who live in that area.
WHAT ENVIRONMENTAL ROLE DOES THE CAHABA RIVER PLAY WITHIN ITS GEOGRAPHY?
The Cahaba River is unique for many reasons. In fact, each square mile of the Cahaba River has more biological diversity than any other river of its size in North America — definitely east of the Mississippi. It’s home to numerous unique species of vertebrates and invertebrates, including some endangered species of fish, mussels, and amphibians. One of the most interesting things about the Cahaba River is that it does flow through areas where people live. It is a drinking water resource for Jefferson County, so it does play a critical role in sustaining the livelihood of people who live in this area.
WHAT ARE THE THREATS FACING THE CAHABA RIVER?
The river has always been a vital source for native Americans. They fished on it; they lived on it. Of course, rivers themselves were critical to navigation for trade. If we fast-forward to the 21st century, we find that our population and development around the river becomes an environmental stress.The biggest threat to the Cahaba River is sedimentation. Over the past 50 to 100 years, the river has changed dramatically. There’s been a concerted effort in the last 25 years to study the river... to look at its environmental integrity. Many different organizations have launched stewardship programs and education programs, to study the river in order to protect it, and to learn more about its uniqueness to Alabama.What we want to see now is how each generation can contribute to the sustainability of the river, and that’s what we see with many of our schools: Using the Cahaba River as a living laboratory.
WHAT SPECIFIC STUDIES HAVE BEEN UNDERTAKEN BY EDUCATORS AND STUDENTS?
Well, we have a unique situation in that many of our high schools are located directly on the Cahaba River. We have some wonderful environmental science teachers that have embraced that resource and have actually developed their whole-year curriculum around the study of the Cahaba River — from its flora, to its fauna, to the chemistry, to the geology.
These teachers are truly passionate about their work and their cause to save the river. They instill the values of environmental stewardship in their students by virtue of this ability to walk outside, get students into the river, and actually have them perform macroinvertebrate studies, water chemistry analysis, or sedimentation studies, and actually see the natural workings of a riparian ecosystem. It’s a wonderful way to teach science, scientific literacy, and environmental science first-hand.
WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ROLE OF MACROINVERTEBRATES IN THE CAHABA RIVER?
Because of their unique structure and function, macroinvertebrates are indicator species of water quality. They live, at least in one capacity of their life, in water, and some species for up to four years. They don’t migrate, so they are greatly affected by any change in sediment. When we are sampling macroinvertebrates, we are looking for diversity of species; for the evenness of these species, and the richness of these species. Depending on what we find, they will indicate good water quality, as well as impaired.
HOW ARE THE STUDIES USED? FOR EXAMPLE, DOES THE EPA UTILIZE MACROINVERTEBRATE STUDIES TO DETERMINE THE OVERALL HEALTH BASED ON THE BIOTIC INDEX?
Yes. The EPA uses a standard biotic index, and calculates the values that are sampled on different river sources (the Cahaba being one) through different state or volunteer organizations, such as Alabama Water Watch, and through schools that are actively involved in a long-term study of a water source or watershed, such as the Cahaba River and Hoover High School.
The data that the EPA compiles every year is instrumental in identifying trends and patterns by looking at systems that have been implemented, whether it be low-impact development or restoration progress, and how those systems aid in restoring different areas of the Cahaba River that are considered impaired due to degradation of its natural environment.
SO, DATA COLLECTION IS ACTUALLY USED TO CREATE DATABASES FOR MONITORING?
The Cahaba River is a drinking water resource. People live on it. People depend on it. This data and analysis provides a validation and planning structure to sustain the integrity of the water. Through these snapshots, trends may emerge that could initiate or change policy, or influence opinion about the river, reinforcing a positive relationship to the health of the overall ecosystem.
CAN THERE BE PARALLEL COMPARISONS OR APPLICATIONS NATIONALLY OR INTERNATIONALLY?
There are many different rivers, not only in Alabama, but over the world, that are equally important to local communities, if not a larger ecosystem; important not only to the species that live on it, but to the people who depend on it for their source of drinking water.Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and UNESCO and other NGOs throughout the world work on these river systems to get the citizens and students involved in protecting the source that they have in their own back yard. Similar to the Cahaba, they use that as a teaching tool that inspires their students and informs the community to better understand the significance of aquatic ecosystems on their own life and health.
WOULD YOU AGREE THAT UNDERSTANDING THE RIVER EMPOWERS THOSE WHO DEPEND ON IT TO BE STAKEHOLDERS OR EVEN FUTURE POLICY MAKERS?
Absolutely. I think that’s where we hang our hat. When we empower future generations to understand the complexity and the uniqueness of these beautiful areas, and understand how critical they are to our own livelihoods, then people make good, rational decisions about how resources are being used —how to protect them and sustain them — and how to study them with a critical eye, understanding that they are important to us today and in the future.