The Birmingham Water Works Board is facing a lawsuit due to a lack of ecological protections for the Cahaba River that should have been enacted almost 20 years ago as a result of a legal settlement, according to a local environmental group.
“The settlement required easements be placed within 30 days,” said David Butler, the staff attorney for the Cahaba Riverkeeper, a group that helps to preserve the Cahaba River. “Yet, nothing happened for almost 16 years.”
In 2001, the Birmingham Water Works Board agreed to a settlement with the Alabama attorney general’s office to create conservation easements, which is a type of protection from development, for the land that surrounds the Cahaba River. However, the Board has not made an easement that is aligned with the state law and has already sold land which conflicts with the settlement, according to a press release from the Southern Environmental Law Center
Butler said that the Birmingham Water Works Board’s “easements,” should be called restrictions considering they do not follow the same rules as normal conservation easements.
“When you place conservation easements on land, you have to have a third party to hold the easement,” Butler said. “You can’t own the land and hold the easement.”
Butler said that conservation easements are restrictions that allow for the land to maintain its current state without threat of being changed drastically.
“A conservation easement is a protection for a set of land that restricts what can be done on the property,” Butler said. “The conservation easement is also permanent.”
Rick Jackson, a spokesperson for the Birmingham Water Works Board, said the board has protected water supplies and their surrounding areas.
“Birmingham Water Works is committed to providing the highest quality water to our entire service area,” Jackson said. “We have a long track record of fighting to protect all our various sources of water supply, including all the lands surrounding Lake Purdy and the Cahaba River. Our attorneys are in the process of reviewing this lawsuit and will take the appropriate action to properly respond to it in court.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Cahaba Riverkeeper, the Cahaba River Society and the Southern Environmental Law Center, which all say the board is endangering the drinking water of Birmingham residents.
“Roughly 500,000 people depend on the Cahaba River for drinking water,” Butler said. “If they allow that area to be developed, it will forever eliminate a layer of protection for our drinking water.”
Butler said the third party to hold the land must be a conservation organization of some sort that checks the land every year to make sure no development has taken place and then documents the findings.
“Without that third party,” Butler said, “the only oversight is the same overseers that didn’t implement those easements for 16 years.”
Butler said if it wasn’t for property owners that surround the Cahaba River, then the Birmingham Water Works Board might not have implemented their version of easements in 2017.
“They attempted to sale and even develop that land, but the surrounding property owners pushed for the Water Works to honor their commitment,” Butler said. “In 2017, the Birmingham Water Works adopted what they claim are conservation easements.”
Butler said the attorney general has had the power to enforce the easements but has not done so.
“The only reason I think the attorney general has not done anything is because no one has stood up and said anything,” Butler said. “With the Water Works and the attorney general holding the easements, we aren’t even sure if they are doing what’s required.”
Butler said litigation was the environmental group’s last choice when it came to addressing the issue.
“We have negotiated with them for over three years, and we tried everything other than litigation,” Butler said. “I’m comfortable knowing we did everything possible prior to litigation.”