City planners, engineers and other professionals gathered at the 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort, Ala., on Oct. 17, to hear speakers from Auburn University discuss the impacts poorly planned development can have on water quality, water storage and critical natural habitats in an area. The speakers particularly focused on the role of headwater wetlands in combating pollution. A healthy coastal forest headwater wetland takes in water from surrounding land and holds it like a sponge, filtering out nutrients and other impurities before eventually releasing cleaner water downstream.
Auburn University Forestry Professor Chris Anderson, the event’s organizer, said that the South is projected to go through tremendous urban growth in the next 50 years. The Gulf Coast could see more than 25 percent of its forests lost to development. Anderson explained that the wrong kinds of development can hamper the natural processes in place for drainage and filtration, which in turn impacts overall water quality in the area.
“How we move water off of streets and into wetlands is critical for their health going forward,” he said. “We are creating more and more surface water, when we want ground infiltration.”
In light of that, Auburn Extension Specialist Christian Miller and Landscape Architecture Professor Charlene LeBleu both outlined Low Impact Development (LID) concepts and how they can be used to return drainage in urban streets and buildings to a more natural state. LeBleu, part of the team that created the newly published Alabama Low Impact Development handbook, suggested very specific steps, such as installing permeable paving, that developers and municipalities can take to alleviate negative impacts from large paved areas like parking lots.
“A lot of people could understand this and would be behind it—if they knew about it,” said Daryl Russell, an engineer with McCrory & Williams, a company helping the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System protect the region’s water quality.
Nancy Milford, a city planner from Fairhope, Ala., agreed. Fairhope, she said, was working toward trying to implement LID and this workshop was “right on point” with their efforts. As a result, Milford posed a lot of questions to LeBleu that went past implementation and into upkeep of some of the ideas suggested.
“Maintenance of these LID systems is just as important as design for them to function correctly,” Michael Shelton, Weeks Bay Reserve Training Program Coordinator, said.
Auburn Forest Hydrology Professor Latif Kalin showed how modeling can quantify the behavior of wetlands under different circumstances. And, of course, models also predict how different types of development will impact drainage and overall water quality going forward.
Kalin’s models show clearly the denitrifying function of a healthy wetland. “We can use these models to get all kinds of different stories about what’s really happening in these wetlands,” said Kalin. “We can predict an overall nutrient budget with very good accuracy.”
Workshop participants went into the field to see examples of a healthy headwater wetland and one that had been severely compromised.
Mayor Brett Dungan of Bayou La Batre, Ala., attended, saying he felt an obligation to voters to learn about best practices in urban planning. Having an opportunity to go in the woods to see firsthand the concepts in the lectures really brought home to him the importance of sustainable development to the future of his small city.