The Black Warrior River drains portions of seventeen counties in Alabama. The area the river drains, known as its watershed, covers 6,276 square miles in Alabama and measures roughly 300 miles from top to bottom. The Black Warrior River watershed is home to over one million residents and contains 16,145.89 miles of mapped streams.
The Black Warrior River’s headwaters consist of the beautiful Sipsey, Mulberry, and Locust Forks. Once these rivers merge west of Birmingham, the Black Warrior River proper forms the border of Jefferson and Walker counties. Near Tuscaloosa, the river flows out of the rocky Cumberland Plateau and through the Fall Line Hills before entering the sandy East Gulf Coastal Plain, forming the border of Greene and Hale counties in the Black Belt. This lower section of the river below Tuscaloosa still operates as a floodplain, covered with expanses of river bottom hardwoods and bald cypress and tupelo gum wetlands. Between Eutaw and Demopolis white and gray limestone and chalk bluffs crop up along the river’s banks. At Demopolis the Black Warrior flows into the Tombigbee River towards Mobile Bay.
The Black Warrior River and its tributaries are a major source of drinking water for many cities including Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Bessemer, Cullman, Oneonta, and Jasper.
The Sipsey Fork, one of the Black Warrior’s three major tributaries (aka “Forks”) and the headwater of Smith Lake, is Alabama’s only federally designated Wild & Scenic River. Its headwaters originate in the 24,922-acre Sipsey Wilderness within Bankhead National Forest. The original Sipsey Wilderness was designated in the Eastern Wilderness Act of 1974 and received an addition in 1988 to bring it to its current size. It is the second largest Forest Service managed wilderness area in Forest Service Region 8, which boasts 87 wilderness areas total.
The Mulberry Fork is the most impacted of the three headwater forks of the Black Warrior River. Because of agricultural, municipal, and industrial pollution the Mulberry has a more simplified aquatic environment than the other Black Warrior forks.
The Locust Fork is the only headwater fork of the Black Warrior River that rises in a region other than the Cumberland Plateau, in a physiographic province known as Sand Mountain. According to Alabama geologist Jim Lacefield, the Locust flows through an ancient riverbed that is 300 million years old. Older than the Appalachian Mountains, this ancient riverbed actually cuts through the mountain a number of times through features known as “water gaps.”
According to Eastern Fly Fishing Magazine, the National Park Service rated the Black Warrior’s three forks in the top 2% of U.S. streams for “outstandingly remarkable values.”
Boating magazine called the Black Warrior River one of America’s best kept secrets for recreational boating.
Alabama, “the River State,” contains more miles of navigable waterways than any other state. Over 200 miles of the river are navigable by barge – from Demopolis to North of Birmingham up the Mulberry and Locust forks. This is made possible due to 4 large lock and dam structures on the main stem of the river.
The Black Warrior River watershed is home to 127 freshwater fish species (4 of which are federally listed as endangered), 36 species of mussels (5 of which are federally listed as endangered), 33 crayfish species, 15 turtle species (1 of which is federally listed as threatened), an endangered snail, and numerous other aquatic animals.
According to the Alabama Office of Water Resources, Alabama has more species of freshwater turtles than the rest of North America combined. (52% of the continent’s species) According to the Alabama Department of Natural Resources, Alabama is home to 83 species of crayfish, more than any other state.
Most of Alabama’s coal reserves are found in the Warrior Coal Field. The proposed Shepherd Bend Mine on the Black Warrior River’s Mulberry Fork has landed the Black Warrior on the annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers™.
The Black Warrior River is named after Chief Tushkalusa, also the namesake of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In Choctaw, tushka means “warrior” and lusa means “black.”
The Black Warrior River was a major base of Mississippian culture, a.k.a. Moundbuilders, particularly at Moundville, where Moundville Archaeological Park is now located on the border of Hale and Tuscaloosa Counties. Eight hundred years ago, Moundville was the largest population center in North America. Learn more at http://moundville.ua.edu/
When Black Warrior Riverkeeper was founded the protect the Black Warrior River in 2001, we were the 72nd autonomous chapter of Waterkeeper Alliance. Now there are over 200 Waterkeeper groups on 6 continents working to protect their sources of clean water.