Alabama Waterways

For those of us who use and drink from the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River, the past few summers have revealed the extent to which our water is being polluted. I would say the summer of 2019 has been life changing for many of us.

Unfortunately, we are not alone. 3M’s illegal chemical release into the Tennessee River was reported on social media and by the press. In South Alabama Union Town’s struggle for clean water has been well documented. On September 13, 2019, Black Warrior Riverkeeper posted that wastewater is being discharged into Freetown Creek which makes its way to the Alabama River. Improper sewage treatment has plagued Union Town in one way or another for years.

This is 2019. How can it be that we still allow the systematic pollution of our water? How can it be that we are not notified when there is a life-threatening “spill” into our waterways? I remember in school learning that there are three basic needs for survival: food, water, and shelter. Water is a basic human need, and yet, we allow companies and municipalities to pour filth into our rivers.

I suppose we all believe that our water treatment facilities can blast the filth coated water with enough chemicals that the bad stuff can be killed, or maybe we think we can filter out the bad chemicals poured in by these companies. Deep down we instinctively know how dangerous it is to ignore the pollution of our life-giving rivers.

Alabama deserves better.

Misled

Those of us at Sipsey Heritage Commission have been discussing the recent revelation (revealed by Black Warrior Riverkeeper) that ADEM was fully aware of the high e.coli levels present on the Mulberry Fork in the aftermath of the Tyson spill which occurred on June 6, 2019. ADEM withheld this information from the public.

We have heard phrases like “due process” and “open investigation” thrown around in the public discourse. These terms always seem to favor one side. It is not the side of the people who actually fish in, recreate on, and drink water from the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River. Paraphrasing Jared Aaron, one of our members, ADEM really doesn’t work for us. In fact, Lance LaFluer told Brian Pia of ABC 3340 that fining Tyson for the spill is “Old School.” (Perhaps this argument can be used if we get pulled over for speeding.)

While Tyson does press releases extolling the great charity work it does, we on the Mulberry Fork continue to live in the aftermath of this environmental disaster. While Tyson reports that it has given 19,000 pounds of chicken to an after school program in Tennessee, teenagers from Sipsey and Empire are still on the river, but they are no longer able to supplement family meals with fish. Providing food for the family table should rank high among after school programs. While Tyson sends an open letter to the residents of Hanceville, this massive company goes on pretending that Colony, Bremen, Sipsey, Empire, Argo, and Cordova do not exist. It can be added here that Hanceville is above the actual spill.

Even worse is to be misled by our own people, the people who are supposed to be protecting us from companies that have no qualms poisoning us if it means a few more dollars in profit. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management is an agency that is supposed to “assure for all citizens of the State a safe, healthful, and productive environment.” ADEM has failed in its mission, and it has ignored its reason to exist.

Time

I think a lot about time, always have. I think this stems from the fact that my grandmother was the youngest of eighteen children. Mimi’s father was 57 years old, and her mother was 47 in 1912, the year she was born. Mimi’s parents told stories about their parents, and this put her in touch with a much earlier time simply because her parents were old enough to be her grandparents.

They had a farm located on the ridge between the Sipsey and Mulberry Forks, and the rivers played a big role in their lives. Like many families of the time, Mimi’s family had a variety of crops and livestock . One of the things the women of the family were responsible for was collecting medicinal plants from the woods, especially plants that grew near the rivers. The Sipsey Fork had some types of plants, and the Mulberry Fork had others, and certainly there were some plants common to both. Mimi and her sisters would sell medicine plants every year to buy material for making clothes.

Mimi had a sister-in-law, Rinthey, who was a midwife and healer who knew how to properly dry and store the medicine plants the women collected. She was very skilled at using these medicinal plants for a variety of illnesses. People would visit Rinthey rather than going to a doctor.

They had a rhythm to their lives. Each season held a series of tasks and celebrations that marked time. Mimi thought it was important for her grandchildren to know about how things had worked when she was young. I’m sure she saw that we were losing information even as we gained modern conveniences.

She had a friend whose family lived on the Mulberry Fork. The family supplemented their income by moonshining, a very common practice at the time. Because of this, they were very cautious about who came and went. If you visited them, you came in by river. Mimi’s father would take her in a small boat to their land. Big dogs guarded the way into the family homestead. She and the girl would play on the valley that hugged the crocked river.

I was a teenager the first time I saw the old home place of Mimi’s friend. The wide fields had been sown with corn that was about a foot high, and it appeared blue when the sun hit it a certain way. The Mulberry Fork sparkled gold beside the corn. There was an old Native American fish trap in the water, and fish were funneling through it. The scene was breathtaking. In that moment I was a part of it.

In my lifetime I have seen this place change. The Mulberry Fork still runs through it, but once it’s time for the corn to be a foot high, the river does not sparkle. The cloudy turbidity prevents that. In the Fall of 2018 I kayaked passed this spot. I could not see through the water, . But, there are times when the water is translucent.

The Mulberry Fork needs to be restored. Tyson needs to properly maintain the River Valley Ingredients plant in such a way that there are no more direct releases into Dave Young Creek. A better physical barrier between the plant and the water needs to be built. We as a community need a way to monitor the water quality by a trusted means, and we need aquatic life.

Surely, the powers that be at Tyson have familial connections with water and land. Surely, they remember grandparents that fished and swam and paddled and grew crops and visited friends. Surely they want their children and grandchildren to be able to do the same.

If not, then Tyson and all companies like Tyson are going to restrict us into such a that we lose that sense of Time and the continuity that it gives. Are we going to see a complete break between what went before and what comes after? And if that happens, whose fault it that? We can blame Tyson; they deserve it. Mostly, I blame myself in not recognizing sooner that my grandmother’s legacy is something for which I need to fight.

Martha SalomaaComment
Twenty-Two Days Later

Maybe I was naive, but I truly believed our rivers would at least look better by now. Yesterday evening when I passed The Forks, the water had a yellowish almost mustard green look that I suppose indicates algae. Every where I go, I have overheard people talking about the spill, and the affect it may or may not have had on our drinking water.

My husband (who despises any type of waste) made a pot of coffee earlier in the week , and it tasted so strange that he poured it down the drain. I ran into an old friend in a store yesterday. She told me that she has resorted to buying the gallon jugs of water to make coffee and tea.

My father and I took a short trip to Moulton a couple of days ago to visit the Oakville Indian Mounds. We enjoyed the visit, but even in those surroundings, the Mulberry Fork was our main topic of conversation. He is 85 years old, and he cannot believe the current state of the river. He wonders if and when it will recover.

The river has been a part of so many of our family events. This stretches from the innumerable years before I was born until today. When I was very small, my mother would tell me about a flood that occurred when she was in school. She had a way of story-telling, and I could picture the water and hear its deafening rush.

The river flooded in April the year my mother died. She was very sick, and she was in a wheelchair. When she heard how high the river was, she demanded we take her to see it. She was a woman you didn’t tell “no”, so we loaded her up and rode around to every access point. Even in her suffering, she was connected to the river, and it gave her energy to see it. The river gives life.

It’s our turn now to give back to the river. We have to do for it what it cannot do for itself.

Martha SalomaaComment
Connections

When I was a girl, my family would tell stories about my paternal grandfather, Tap, who was killed a few years before I was born. Not all of them were flattering. Even so, everyone agreed that he was a gifted fisherman. He would set trout lines and go and check them on a regular basis. He frequented the Black Water, and the Sipsey Fork. But, many of the stories about him are set on the Mulberry Fork. My grandmother thought he spent too much time on the river.

One day on the Mulberry Fork, Tap and a friend were checking trout lines. It was hot summer. Tap had an old boat (or maybe he had borrowed it) that had no motor, so they paddled. The two men had gone up river just about as far as the trout lines were set when a cotton mouth fell out of a tree and into the boat between Tap and the other man.

The other man stood up in the boat, pulled out a pistol, and promptly shot the snake which was in the bottom of the boat. “Well ain’t you just a damn genius,” Tap is quoted as saying as the boat sank. They had to walk the muddy river bank all the way home.

I had been on the river in some form or fashion all of my life: sometimes on the bank, sometimes in a boat with a motor, and sometimes in a canoe. A few years back my nephew talked me into trying out a kayak.

Kayaks are silent. On one trip down the river with family, we were all quite. A blue heron began following us almost as soon as we put in. He would fly ahead, wait till we were almost close enough to touch him, and then he would fly ahead again.

The water was like glass, and it seemed effortless to pull myself along the water. I was a part of everything around me, and I realized I was moving through the same path my grandfather would have traveled many times over. I felt a connection with him in that moment, like I really knew him. It was almost as if I paddled hard enough, He would be around the next bend in the river.

Martha SalomaaComment
Death on the Mulberry Fork

We visited the Mulberry Fork at one of our favorite spots a couple of miles north of the Sipsey/Mulberry Fork. This is a place that is usually teeming with life. In the past we have seen all manner of aquatic life including the endangered Black Warrior River Dog.

On one occasion we had a visitor napping on our porch. He woke up because he felt like he was being watched. He turned and saw an otter intensely observing him. This otter and his partner were frequent visitors to our spot.

When the otters were not there, we had unusually intelligent beavers. Once when the river was quite high, four beavers gathered on the opposite side of the Mulberry Forks. I was convinced they were plotting as they watched us.

But on June 13, 2019, the river was silent. There was nothing in the water. We watched for awhile, but we could see no movement, no ripples, no otters, no beavers. However, there were birds. They were loud, disturbed.

There was one turtle.

It was eerie, disturbing.

What will it take to bring our river back?

It’s going to take us all working together.

Martha SalomaaComment
2019 Race Canceled

It is with deep regret that we announce that we have been forced to cancel the 3rd Annual Sipsey Fork River Race. As many of you already know, the Mulberry Fork has suffered a massive fish kill due to a spill from the Tyson Foods/ American Protein, River Valley Plant in Hanceville, Alabama.The spill and all it carried with it was pulled at least one mile up the Sipsey Fork. Originally, we believed enough water would pass through both forks to dilute our waters to safe levels. Yesterday, we took water samples and submitted them to an EPA recognized company. Today we learned that the levels of bacteria were several times the acceptable level for human recreation. It would be irresponsible for us to continue with the race under these circumstances. On June 22 at 8:00 am, we will be at the boat ramp behind T&R Grocery at The Forks. People who have ordered t-shirts may pick them up there. We will also have contact information so that you may speak up regarding the assault on our river.

Martha SalomaaComment