Birmingham Council Members Push Back Against Road in Watershed That Protects Drinking Water

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Source: Miranda Fulmore, WBHM

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By Hank Black

The Birmingham City Council appears set to oppose construction of the controversial Cahaba Beach road and bridge project across the Little Cahaba River.

The Little Cahaba flows from the Lake Purdy reservoir a quarter-mile upstream from the project to the larger Cahaba River, where the Birmingham Water Works Board takes water for treatment.

A majority of council members, meeting as a committee-of-the-whole on Monday, voted to recommend against connecting Cahaba Beach Road off U.S. 280 to Sicard Hollow Road in Shelby County and to the Liberty Park development in Vestavia. The vote included a total of seven council members, President Valerie Abbott among them. A full council vote is set for Nov. 20.

Representatives of environmental groups at the meeting said the road is an “unnecessary convenience road for a few” that “should not outweigh the risks to the quality and cost of a main drinking water source for 600,000 people.”

The Alabama Department of Transportation and Shelby County engineers are pushing to extend Cahaba Beach Road across a new bridge to Sicard Hollow Road in Shelby County. Representatives of those entities did not attend Monday’s meeting.

No Opinion yet From Water Board

The Birmingham committee sought the opinion of the water works board, but under questioning, General Manager Mac Underwood, Chairman Tommy Joe Alexander and member Sherry Lewis repeatedly insisted they needed a formal presentation from ALDOT at its next meeting, also scheduled for Nov. 20, before issuing an opinion. A scheduled August presentation by the department had been postponed, they said.

Underwood said he and some board members had heard plans for proposed routes across the river at two ALDOT public input meetings, and they heard a formal presentation by the Cahaba River Society opposing the project.

“But we have not heard (a presentation) directly from ALDOT, so the Birmingham Water Works Board has taken no position on this,” Underwood said. “[However[ we don’t see any direct benefit to the water works board based on information received so far, but (the board as a whole) has not taken a position.”

A water works engineer told the committee that ALDOT had not demonstrated a clear purpose for the project, but without a formal presentation, a thorough quantitative analysis of the impact on the Cahaba watershed and water quality could not be performed.

The potential construction would go through a watershed area owned primarily by private landowners, although the water works board owns a “small portion,” Underwood said. He added that all the property is protected by covenants on land in the heavily forested area.

Underwood said ALDOT nevertheless could move to take the property for the road and bridge project by eminent domain. However Cahaba River Society Executive Director Beth Stewart said eminent domain action to accomplish a public purpose may be limited because it would conflict with another public purpose, such as supplying drinking water.  Eminent domain would require a project to be “necessary” and must not present problems with the first public purpose of protecting drinking water supply, she contends.

Rare Opposition to State Road Project

Stewart said a survey of Liberty Park residents showed that 95 percent of the 400 respondents were opposed to the project, largely because of the potential for additional traffic to the area.

“This is the first project we’ve opposed in 15 years,” Stewart said. “We’ve worked with ALDOT on many public projects, including the Northern Beltline and Caldwell Mill Road projects, to minimize the impact on water quality. We feel this is an unnecessary road and one giving convenience to a few people does not outweigh risk to the safety and quality of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people.”

Cahaba Riverkeeper David Butler, who monitors the river and tributaries for water quality, said his organization agrees with Stewart. Butler also said previous water works boards “had seen the advantage to protecting the Little Cahaba River.”

He said to allow eminent domain to take watershed land.

“[It] would set a dangerous precedent … (T)here’s no greater purpose than protecting our source of water for the metropolitan community … and somebody needs the courage to do that,” he said.

Stewart also said a report by a Samford University ecology expert concluded the project would “have a negative Impact” on the watershed. The report, by Mike Howell, was prepared on behalf of property owners in the area and provided to ALDOT, she said.

Council member Steven Hoyt said the potential impact on the water supply from construction and subsequent use of the project “would have an adverse effect on our water. It’s a no-brainer to me.”

Councilor Hunter Williams said two neighborhoods in his District 2 are in the proposed project’s area.

“It’s the overall concern of my district that this is not a welcome project,” he said.

Williams moved to pass the resolution against building the road and bridge and Abbott quickly seconded it.

No Delay

Before the vote, Hoyt said delaying a council vote to wait on a water works opinion would be unwise. Referencing the slow city action on moving downtown interstate highways, he said, “I’ve seen delays cause so much pain. I hope (the water works board members) are not playing games. I hope delay is not a strategy … Don’t kick it down the road to the point we do nothing.”

Water works chairman Alexander made a last-second appeal to delay a vote on the resolution. He said he’d talked informally with an ALDOT official who provided him with pros and cons of the project.

“I’m not saying I’d be for or against it, but I want the whole board to hear (from ALDOT),” Alexander said.

Then committee Chairman Darrell O’Quinn and members Williams and Lashunda Scales, joined by councilors Abbott, Hoyt, William Parker and John Hilliard, all voted to recommend that the City Council vote to oppose the project.

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