The Alabama Rivers and Streams Network
–Conserving Biodiversity Through the Strategic Habitat Unit Concept–
Overview: In an effort to improve water quality, water supply, preserve biotic integrity, and promote restoration efforts for Alabama’s critical waterways the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Geological Survey of Alabama (GSA), the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), and the Alabama Clean Water Partnership (ACWP) began developing the Strategic Habitat Unit (SHU) approach to habitat
restoration in 2006. The SHU concept was created to promote multi-agency/organizational partnerships for the purpose of addressing long-term habitat and water quality needs for Alabama’s 75 federally listed and candidate freshwater species. Additionally, the USFWS has recently been petitioned to list another 111 freshwater species, many of which are recognized by the ADCNR as conservation priority species (mussels, snails, crayfish, and fishes). Because of Alabama’s globally significant freshwater biodiversity, federally protected and rare species occur in 44 separate watersheds across the state. The group of agencies, organizations, and individuals implementing SHU activities are now joined in an organization known as the Alabama Rivers and Streams Network with a stated mission to investigate, manage, and develop our water resources in a comprehensive way to minimize their degradation, maximize their availability for al users, and restore and recover aquatic habitats and species.
Approaching this overwhelming conservation challenge through a cooperative, local process is critical to addressing long-term habitat needs of Alabama’s imperiled species. However, equally as important, the SHU process will ultimately improve water resources quality statewide by directing limited dollars and research efforts to targeted restoration efforts inside priority watersheds. This watershed and community-based approach improves water resource conditions for Alabama’s communities and rare species simultaneously. If successful, substantial long-term cost savings are anticipated by improving water supply, water quality, and decreasing the regulatory burden that conservation can impose.
The SHU and recovery process is accomplished in 3 major steps:
I. Objective: Compilation of monitoring data, database development, and the preparation of a specific watershed management plan for each SHU.
- The GSA completes initial water quality, biological, and habitat surveys across the watersheds
- Water, habitat, biological monitoring, and land-use data are combined within a Geographic Information Systems (GIS)-based product highlighting specific challenges within each SHU
- A final report and GIS database are generated for each SHU
- These data are passed along to the public stakeholders including the SHU partners (ADCNR, ACWP, and USFWS)
- The ACWP prepares a comprehensive watershed management plan guiding community-based habitat restoration in each basin
The GSA has completed initial data collection and GIS analysis for the North River watershed. The North River is on Alabama’s 303(d) list of impaired water bodies supplying drinking water for nearly 15% of all Alabama residents (Lake Tuscaloosa). A portion of the North River system was also designated critical habitat by the USFWS in 2004 for several species of protected mussels. Despite the 303(d) designation and critical habitat listing, water quality in the watershed is still threatened by expanding urban areas and nonpoint source agricultural runoff. The GSA report and ACWP plan were completed within the past 2 years and a website for public outreach was launched (http://www.northriverwatershed.org/). On-the-ground sediment reduction efforts have begun and species recovery efforts are to be initiated in 2013. The GSA, ADCNR, and USFWS have completed paved and unpaved road crossing inventory in the North River and discovered several crossing structures that are fish passage barriers and others that need work to reduce stream sedimentation problems. Habitat and biological monitoring activities are well underway by these groups in the Big Canoe Creek system and have recently been completed in the Terrapin Creek, Murder Creek, and Locust Fork systems as well. Development of specific ACWP watershed restoration plans by SHU will follow the completion of initial monitoring efforts.
II. Objective: Restoration of freshwater biodiversity through culture and propagation
- ADCNR created the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center (AABC) to promote imperiled species recovery in accordance with the State Wildlife Action Plan (2004)
- The research/hatchery facility based near Marion was refit and dedicated in October 2010
- During the refit, culture techniques were perfected for a number of species
- Reintroduction efforts initially focused on several very rare species to prevent extinction
- AABC activities require a strong basic research component and several university and research institutional partnerships have been formed
- AABC recovery activities also require strong partnerships with other federal and state resource agencies to promote recovery with a range of species and habitats
In cooperation with other state, not-for-profit, and federal recovery partners, AABC biologists completed regional recovery planning documents for freshwater mollusks and plans for fishes are under development. Reciprocating brood stock agreements have been established with other state resource agencies and recovery activities are pursued in Alabama and other states. These efforts attempt to reintroduce species to recovered habitats throughout their historic range, and to date all reintroduction attempts are persisting. Research links have been established with Auburn University, North Carolina State University, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, University of Alabama, University of Georgia, University of Michigan, and the Smithsonian Institution. To promote both recovery and research activities the AABC will next focus on the development of student intern programs.
III. Objective: Improving partnership and technical approaches to promote the SHU process
- The ACWP promotes watershed restoration and provides a forum for a range of stakeholders (http://www.cleanwaterpartnership.org/ )
- Other state NGO’s, particularly The Nature Conservancy of Alabama, directly assists ACWP and ADCNR species and habitat restoration efforts
- The USFWS is developing a web-based share-point system to track environmental data and direct habitat recovery efforts within each SHU
- Flow restoration efforts initiated by public utilities (Tennessee Valley Authority and Alabama Power Company) will realize new reintroduction opportunities for many species
- Other partners have begun participating in the process (Alabama Forestry Commission, Public Utilities, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Alabama Department of Environmental Management, etc.) but additional outreach and support is required
- The University of Alabama Center for Economic Development has expressed interest in participating in an economic assessment demonstrating the long term financial benefits of riverine restoration
- The SHU process can provide a framework for implementing any future statewide water management activities and demonstrates why an integrated ecosystem approach and local stakeholder engagement is critical to successfully resolving complex natural resource issues.
This last objective will be the most difficult to develop and implement. Translating ecological restoration of state water resources to long-term economic sustained benefits isn’t inherently
obvious. However, when continued water resource degradation insures increasing regulatory costs, diminished flows, and increasing water treatment costs; all of which jeopardize future water supply and availability, the benefits of restoration become obvious. One group that needs to be more involved in the process would be public utilities, particularly water and wastewater treatment programs that benefit most from the program. There’s also a public health interest to this program, as failure to protect waterways will directly affect the state’s population through diminished supply or even water-borne diseases. Additionally, techniques that emphasize how restorations are best accomplished should be promoted through new academic research programs at the university level. Several western universities (e.g. Colorado State) have recently developed watershed management programs, but currently no complementary program exists in the southeast.
For additional Information on the SHU process contact:
Pat O’Neil, Director Ecosystems Investigations Program, Geological Survey of Alabama
Stan Cook, Chief of Fisheries, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Allison Jenkins, Executive Director, Alabama Clean Water Partnership
William Pearson, Field Supervisor, US Fish and Wildlife Service