The Cahaba River Society Secures Landmark Drinking Water Protection - Cahaba River Society

Map of Birmingham Water Works Board protected land around Birmingham metro drinking water source.
Map of Birmingham Water Works Board protected land around Birmingham metro drinking water source.

The Cahaba River Society and Cahaba Riverkeeper (CRK), represented by Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), reached an agreement with the Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB) and the Attorney General of Alabama to protect 7,000 acres of forested lands around one of the Birmingham metro area’s primary sources of drinking water. The agreement, the result of a lawsuit brought by the Cahaba River Society in partnership with CRK and SELC, protects land surrounding Lake Purdy, the Little Cahaba River, and the Cahaba River from development for 75 years.

The BWWB agreement is the largest single land protection action in the history of the Birmingham metropolitan area. This forested land acts as a natural filter, protecting our water supply from runoff and minimizing the effects of droughts and other adverse weather events. This natural buffer keeps treatment costs down and water bills low for all BWWB customers, supporting water equity for the Birmingham area’s diverse population. Under the terms of the agreement, the Cahaba River Society and Cahaba Riverkeeper serve as guardians of this land. We have the legal right to perform regular inspections and enforce protections to ensure the Birmingham Water Works Board’s compliance with the agreement.

Click here to support the Cahaba River Society. Your donation provides the resources necessary to ensure the BWWB’s compliance with this historic agreement.

“We now have a strong tool that engages the community with the water board in long-term protection of the land and drinking water source,” said Cahaba River Society Executive Director Beth Stewart. “We appreciate that the Birmingham Water Works Board and the Attorney General worked with us to find a solution that benefits all.”

The agreement requires restrictive covenants in Jefferson and Shelby County probate courts. The covenants protect the land even if it is sold by the BWWB and will remain in effect for 75 years or as long as the BWWB uses Lake Purdy and the Cahaba River as a water source. If the Water Board purchases new land for water supply protection, we can ensure that it is added to the protective covenants.

Cahaba River Society uses legal action as a last resort. This is only our 4th lawsuit in over 30 years. We undertook this to enforce a 2001 legal settlement between the Birmingham Water Board and Alabama AG, in which the Board committed to place conservation easements over these lands, but never did. CRS, CRK, and SELC tried to work collaboratively with the Board for 3 years to achieve full land protection until it was clear a lawsuit would be necessary. The Alabama Supreme Court unanimously ruled in our favor that the Water Board had not fulfilled their 2001 commitments.

Visit Southern Exposure to see a documentary about the lawsuit that led to this historic land protection.

Tricia Sheets’ Legacy: Land and Drinking Water Protection

Tricia Sheets retired in July 2023 after more than 30 years as our Administrative Director. In this role, she supported our programs and staff and developed our efficiency and financial strength. But she also played an essential role in two of our biggest wins for the river: this protection of 7,000 acres of BWWB land and the Jefferson County sewer repair program that greatly reduced raw sewage overflows in our creeks, rivers, and neighborhoods. Tricia’s work on these projects leaves a legacy for future generations.

We are so grateful for Tricia’s persistence, strategic guidance, research, and community leadership through all these years. To honor her, we are creating the Tricia Sheets Legacy Fund, which will support the Cahaba River Society’s responsibility to safeguard this BWWB land for the next 75 years. Click here to donate to this fund and ensure the Cahaba River Society continues to have the resources to monitor compliance and protect our drinking water.