The Cahaba River Society, the Nature Conservancy, and Alabama Innovation Engine have announced the Cahaba Blueway project, a joint effort to improve access along the more than 190-mile stretch of the Cahaba River and promote education, recreation, and conservation.
“The idea of creating a Cahaba Blueway where we are promoting and improving recreational access…so that the Cahaba not only becomes a beautiful, protected, alive place but also an economic engine for ecotourism — that’s been a dream for a long time,” said Beth Stewart, executive director of the Cahaba River Society.
“We want people — especially our youth — to spend more time outdoors, get to know the Cahaba and make the connection between healthy rivers, a healthy lifestyle, high quality drinking water and our rich wildlife heritage,” she continued. “Bringing people to the Cahaba River is the best way to help them understand and connect with the Cahaba’s values in a way that sparks lifelong stewardship commitment.”
The initial goal of the project is to determine the major access points along the river (currently there are 26) and complete a design guideline that will focus on safe, low-impact, and durable methods of construction for them. The design guide would not be a mandate, but would provide low-cost options to local governments and landowners who lack resources. These designs would include the integration of unified signage, examples of ramp construction, and runoff and pollution prevention methods.
Once the guidelines are finalized, each access point will be assessed on the needs and opportunities of improvement over the next 18 months. A pilot demonstration site will be chosen in a northern section of Jefferson County to act as a model.
Matt Leavell, of the Alabama Innovation Engine, said that he looks at the watershed as a body consisting of a spine in the Cahaba River, a set of veins and arteries in the branching land trails, a soul in the history of the area, and the communities acting as the heart.
According to Leavell, these points — the river, history, land trails, and communities — will connect the project from the urban sections of the river to the more rural areas.
A $47,820 grant from the Sappi Fine Paper “Ideas that Matter” program gave an opportunity for the UAB Graphic Design Program to develop the Cahaba Blueway project logo and promotional materials. Leftover funds will contribute to a future storybook and video, highlighting background of the people and places along the river, and eventually a website and smartphone app.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of the Interior created the National Watertrails Program to protect and restore national rivers and shores and the natural areas alongside them. Only nine have been designated, including the Alabama Scenic River Trail, which is the largest at 631 miles, beginning in northeast Alabama, winding through Selma and ending at Mobile Bay.
The National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program has selected the Blueway as one of its 11 partnership projects in the Southeast to support with planning.
Alison Bullock, a community planner with the RTCA program, said it could be 10 years before the Blueway is federally acknowledged, but the work being done now would push the project in that direction.
The Outdoor Industry Association published a study last year placing outdoor recreation as the third-largest opportunity for generating money, with more than $646 billion spent annually by consumers and providing 6.1 million jobs.
Alabama specifically spent $7.5 billion, creating more than 86,000 jobs and generating almost $500 million in tax revenue in 2012.
David Butler, who operates the Alabama Small Boat Shop in Helena and runs canoe trips on the Cahaba throughout the year, believes the Blueway would help promote his business.
“These guys have a lot of enthusiasm for the river and things that exist on the river,” Butler said of the Blueway partners.
“It’s a rewarding experience for me to send people out [on the river] and have them come back and tell me what they saw or did. It’s a great opportunity for families to get connected outdoors and spend time together.”
The annual Every Drop Matters silent auction benefiting the Cahaba River Society will be held at 5:30 p.m. on April 4 at 130 19th Street South in Birmingham at the ArchitectureWorks building. Tickets are $25.
For more information on national watertrails, visit www.nps.gov/watertrails.