Our Riverkeeper Patrol Program includes water sampling near major pollution sources in order to identify specific problems before we promote solutions. Although citizens and reporters frequently ask about our investigations of specific facilities, one of the questions we receive most often is more general, though no less important: “How is the health of the river?” This question is sometimes followed up with, “Is it cleaner than it used to be, or is it more polluted than ever?” Because local and state governments in Alabama do not track ambient water quality to the extent of some other states, we rely on anecdotal evidence from long-term residents, most of whom declare that the river is cleaner now than it was decades ago. However, we also hear many stories about particular streams that used to be deep and clear, but have now been filled with sediment and/or run discolored.
In 2017, we launched an ambient water quality monitoring program to establish a baseline for overall water quality throughout the river system which will provide scientific evidence to answer the public’s concerns. Additionally, collecting this data can help inform future decisions to be made by our staff. For instance, knowledge of background water quality can help the staff write more informed comment letters on permits and federal actions/regulations with the potential to affect the watershed.
The data can also help staff identify which streams or river segments are more heavily impacted by polluted discharges. Additionally, the data can also help inform the staff with regards to how certain conditions may affect water quality, such as periods of drought or heavy rainfall. The program will also include a component to monitor quality in suspected impaired streams over time for the purpose of identifying streams that should be protected with 303(d) status. Finally, we want all our water quality data to be available on our website for use by our members, regulators, or any other interested parties.