Black Warrior: Vast and Varied
In a state known for boating and bassin’, it’s hard to believe any secrets remain. But Alabama’s Black Warrior River has been called one of America’s best kept secrets for boating. It’s also been described as one of northern Alabama’s top secrets for bass fishing. What’s next, BBQ?
Maybe. It’s easy enough to work up an appetite while hauling in lunker spotted bass, largemouth bass, and even the world record for inland striped bass (69 pounds, 9 ounces from the upper Bankhead Reservoir). And the 180-mile Black Warrior, stretching from the extreme southern edges of the Appalachian Highlands to the Tombigbee River, offers seemingly endless opportunities to do so.
The big bass and boat-friendly atmosphere are largely the result of a river-wide lock-and-dam system that has made the meandering Black Warrior navigable along its entire course. The chain of reservoirs provides an important path for an inland waterway, and also yields hydroelectric power, drinking water, and industrial water.
Three primary tributaries – Sipsey Fork, Locust Fork and Mulberry Fork – enhance the upper basin’s limited free-flowing character with fly fishing opportunities (especially the Locust Fork) and whitewater kayak paddling (Locust and Mulberry). A 61-mile segment of the Sipsey Fork upstream of Lewis Smith Lake has earned federal Wild and Scenic River designation due to its blend of striking landforms, diverse plant life, and outstanding scenery that includes cascading waterfalls, steep canyon walls, and sandstone bluffs up to 100 feet high.
The Black Warrior also runs through the Warrior Coal Field where most of Alabama’s coal reserves are found. The threat of a 1,773-acre coal mine that would discharge polluted wastewater only 800 feet from a major drinking water intake on the river’s primary tributary, the Mulberry Fork, put it on the America’s Most Endangered Rivers® list in 2011 and 2013.
For many years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has allowed the majority of the Black Warrior River watershed’s approximately 95 active coal mines to operate under a general permit known as Nationwide Permit (NWP) 21. The permit does not take local wetland and stream conditions into account, study the possible impacts of the mines, or provide for public input.
The Corps has suspended the use of NWP 21 in other Appalachian states, requiring more careful consideration of a mine’s impacts on water resources and the environment everywhere but Alabama. Despite detailed information offered by the Birmingham Water Works Board about how wastewater discharge from the proposed Shepherd Bend coal mine would introduce sediment and toxic pollutants, such as heavy metals, into the drinking water supply, NWP 21 still makes the mine a possibility.
In 2015, would-be mine operators, Drummond Company, released a statement saying they will not renew their permit to mine coal at the proposed Shepherd Bend site in the Black Warrior drainage. That’s good news for the river and 200,000 citizens of nearby Birmingham that rely on it for drinking water, but the statement did not say whether the decision is permanent.
Even if Drummond is permanently shelving its plan to mine at Shepherd Bend, majority landowners at The University of Alabama should promise they will never sell or lease their land or mineral rights to any mining company at Shepherd Bend. The University should stand up for the health of area residents, students, wildlife and the Black Warrior River itself.