Volunteer monitor success story: Magnolia Springs

To begin our “AWW Success Stories” series, let’s go down to Alabama’s beautiful coastal region and introduce you to the Town of Magnolia Springs (TOMS) monitoring group.   Local citizens began monitoring the Magnolia River around 1996, but significantly stepped up efforts in 2005, with one major goal: to get the Magnolia River upgraded to Outstanding Alabama Water (OAW) status.   TOMS realized that the Magnolia River was an exceptional waterbody, and they decided to do everything possible to make sure that it would stay this way for generations to follow.  Their pursuit of OAW status was a significant step in the right direction. 

TOMS secures OAW status from ADEM for the Magnolia River

from left to right, Ken Underwood, Charlie Houser, Brett Gaar, Richard Odess (all TOMS water watchers); and ADEM officials, Stan Shirley (Environmental Engineer) and Lynn Sisk (Chief, Water Quality Division)

In Alabama there are eight classifications of water use.  Outstanding Alabama Water is the second highest of all the classifications, second only to the Outstanding National Resource Waters, and according to ADEM the “best usage of water assigned this classification are those activities consistent with the natural characteristics of the waters”.    In order for a body of water to receive this classification, it must exhibit a high quality.  The OAW status is rarely granted, and the characteristics that constitute a high quality are very specific and must be documented scientifically.  Clearly not all citizens of Magnolia Springs are scientists, but their certification in the AWW water quality monitoring program, which is approved by both ADEM and the EPA, made it was possible for locals to provide the data necessary to show that the Magnolia River was deserving of the OAW status.   According to TOMS monitor Rick Odess, the contribution from the AWW program that helped the most in this process was that “AWW provided the infrastructure and made it easy for TOMS to get their data to ADEM. AWW acts as a conduit between us and ADEM.”  Not only does OAW status draw deserved attention to the environmentally sound initiatives of Magnolia Springs, including regular water monitoring and strict water quality regulations put in place by the town, it also makes the regulations for potential polluters stricter (to learn more about the OAW  classification, CLICK HERE).

Click Here for mor pics

Although the TOMS group began their testing efforts with the intention of achieving the OAW status, after becoming familiar with the benefits of regular citizen water monitoring, the group has chosen to continue monitoring. The events that have taken place during the past several months in Magnolia Springs have reaffirmed the importance of water monitoring for the community.   Monitors conduct regular AWW tests in the Magnolia River Watershed for chemistry parameters as well as bacteria, including E. coli.   In two years of testing for E. coli in the Magnolia River, the results never exceeded the safety limit set by ADEM for human contact, which is 600 E. coli per 100 mL of water.  However, in January 2010, while the community was beginning to celebrate the recent achievement of OAW status for the River, an AWW monitor near the headwaters of the Magnolia River found extremely high counts of E. coli at his regular testing site.   The community was not sure what to make of the result considering it was so out of the ordinary. 

In March, the Mobile Register published a front page article detailing the problems experienced by a private sewer treatment company in Foley which has a lift station very close to the Magnolia River headwaters.  Heavy rains in January caused problems with the sewer system.  As a response, the company made the decision to discharge raw sewage into the stormwater retention pond of a nearby subdivision.  Community members complained of bad odors in the area which led to the investigation that uncovered the sewage problem.  Because of the proximity of the retention pond to the Magnolia River headwaters, and the heavy rains, it is likely that contaminated water flooded into the Magnolia River, and  that the high E. coli counts discovered by the AWW monitor were connected to this event.  The proactive community of Magnolia Springs did not hesitate to contact the necessary officials, including ADEM. As a result a “cease and desist” order was made by ADEM in March 2010. The sewer company was required to immediately stop all discharges into the retention pond and do a thorough sanitation of the pond to prevent further contamination of the area.  

This event is a vivid reminder to the community of Magnolia Springs, and to other members of the AWW community, that the work of protecting water quality is never finished.   Although a stream or river has been historically healthy, it is important to continue monitoring because you never know when something could go wrong upstream. Long- term data makes it easier to determine when a problem began and what the likely cause is.   Thanks to proactive citizens, the environmental damage of this particular incidence was kept to a minimum. However, there is no guarantee that something similar will not happen again to Magnolia River, and it is likely that other rivers and streams throughout Alabama are being contaminated without detection.  In general, the people who care most about the water quality of a local water body are the people who live near it, play in it, and drink it.  When citizens are equipped with the knowledge and skills to monitor and understand water quality they have the ability to make positive changes.  It is good to be reminded of this fact and to believe in the power of collective action.  It is clear that the monitors in Magnolia Springs believe this and we can all learn a lot from their actions.

To hear more about Magnolia Springs and their efforts to protect the
Magnolia River, check out the interview with Magnolia Springs leaders near
the end of the updated Living Downstream Video (Click Here for the video).

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