Nelson Brooke loved to play in the Black Warrior River as a child. This is why he, along with concerned students, is fighting to save him.
Living in Tuscaloosa means living around the Black Warrior River, a body of water that provides essential resources to the citizens of Tuscaloosa and provides hundreds of ecosystems.
Brooke, a guardian of the Black Warrior River since 2004, has watched raw sewage spills, industrial pollution and roadside trash make their way into the river, which is located near the University of L ‘Alabama. Tuscaloosa is the largest city on the 300 mile long river. He said it takes leadership from elected officials to direct money toward protecting the environment from potential problems.
“The sewerage problems are the result of elected officials not giving a high enough priority to funding the ongoing maintenance and upgrades of obsolete systems that allow sewage spills to occur,” did he declare.
The Black Warrior Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization that relies primarily on donations from the public. The organization also uses grants from charitable foundations to help fund conservation efforts. Soil and water conservation represented 0.01% of Tuscaloosa’s operating budget in 2020.
Desiree Ozols, vice president of the University of Alabama Environmental Council, said the organization has done several cleanups around the Black Warrior River with small groups of students, but she believes the local government needs to intensify its efforts.
“I think that at present the local government of Tuscaloosa is paying little attention to the environment, especially the river,” she said.
In 2019, a Tyson Foods waste spill in Hanceville, 160 km north of Tuscaloosa, polluted two tributaries of the Black Warrior River with E. coli and killed more than 175,000 fish. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management did not publicly notify citizens until more than two months later.
When Brooke started working at Black Warrior Riverkeeper in 2004, the organization had a backlog of hundreds of pollution issues. Today, many of these issues have been resolved.
“It was kind of a big climb for us to try to sort out all of these things,” Brooke said. “We don’t see this kind of backlog of major pollution issues because we’ve been able to fix a lot of those issues. Not because of state regulators – they’re pretty gentle on polluters – but I think because we’re talking about these issues the general public is more aware. There is more public pressure on polluters.
While the Environment Council has been involved in many service projects, Ozols said the organization plans to get more involved in legislation to make up for what she called a lack of leadership.
“It’s appalling how elected officials really don’t care how environmental issues are handled in Tuscaloosa,” she said. “I really wish they would give more money and effort.”
In February, during his reelection campaign for mayor, Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox said the situation was complicated.
“It is difficult at the municipal level to affect climate change, because national and state policies are needed to reduce greenhouse gases and stimulate renewable energies”, Maddox said. “Like so many problems we face, solving pollution and climate change means opportunities for economic development.”
The University’s Finance and Operations Division has detailed its plan for pollution prevention, which includes reducing carbon emissions, eliminating any “unnecessary use of water” at campus facilities, and regularly auditing the University’s environmental regulatory policies.
Brooke said he’s optimistic people are more aware of protecting the river.
“General Alabamian is more inclined to document and report issues either to us or to regulatory agencies when they see them, and that’s very helpful because I can only be in so many places,” a- he declared. “Everyone should reach out to their city councilors, mayor, local lawmakers and demand that more priority and funding be applied to solving the myriad of problems in a faster timeframe.”
Brooke said her personal connection to the river motivates her work.
“It is a passion to protect this river for all who use it, and especially for those who are not aware of all the problems,” he said. “It is not necessarily easy in Alabama to know what the pollution problems are and where they are, because our leaders and regulatory agencies do not prioritize public notification of pollution.”
Ozols said the city needed student engagement to protect local environments and wetlands like the Black Warrior River, which provides drinking water to community members throughout Tuscaloosa. The Black Warrior River also provides support to low income communities that depend on fishing industries.
“Almost everyone should care about this just because so much of our resources come from nearby water bodies,” she said. “At the very least, they make college and life here possible. They support us, and to degrade them completely to the point that we destroy ecosystems and pollute them irreparably, it doesn’t help us to be able to live here or to support the marginalized communities of Tuscaloosa. They have to face the weight of our mistakes and pollution.