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by Libbie Rodgers

 Beth Stewart might have preferred to be canoeing down the Little Cahaba River instead of touring Montevallo and addressing Citizens For Montevallo on December 5, 2005, but you never would have known it. Executive Director of the Cahaba River Society, Alabama’s largest river conservation organization, Beth gave a stirring PowerPoint presentation on “Our River: Our Responsibility.” In it, she dramatized the importance of watershed issues to Montevallo’s future.

In talking about the benefits that a river brings communities, she highlighted ecotourism, recreation, and environmental education. Pointing out that young people today constitute the first generation of students who are not comfortable outdoors, she highlighted the need for environmental education in our schools, especially in grades 4 through 12. Beth emphasized that if children and young adults grow up learning about biological diversity, green spaces, recharging aquifers, and buffer zones to preserve natural areas as they experience natural places, they will become allies in the community effort to protect our water systems. They will want to promote  “green” development and oppose development that builds in the floodplain, fails to control storm water runoff, adds sediment to streams, and contributes to sprawl.

 Developing environmental awareness is especially important in the southeastern United States, and in Alabama in particular, according to Beth, because we have tremendous biological diversity in our river systems, a fact that has been documented by the World Wildlife Fund and by the Nature Conservancy. This richness is under siege by forces that are modifying the landscape and water systems and threatening the survival of many species.  

In proposing solutions to these problems, Beth talked about two major ways to treat our river systems responsibly: 1) protect critical lands by directing development away from them, and 2) design better developments, partly by improving storm water design.

Technical tools for protecting the most sensitive land include a GEIS-based Greenprint Plan, a computer model for evaluating the impact of development on water quality, and a monitoring plan. All three are important to “guide growth.”

 Following the conservation principles of Randall Arendt, Beth proposed that Montevallo planners design conservation subdivisions and provide for streamside buffer zones, which are required setbacks that preserve the natural areas that a creek needs. This kind of “green” development involves less visible and smaller lots, more housing density, and more open space. Accordingly, model ordinances would require respect for floodplains and would mandate better storm water control, partly by reducing dramatically the amount of impervious surface, or area that water cannot penetrate and therefore runs off.

 She advised the city leaders to have a checklist for developers that would make clear what standards and ordinances that the city had in effect and what the penalties would be for violating them.

 Beth pointed out that sometimes the best way to deal with the possibility of development is to reimburse a person for NOT developing. Conservation easements not only insure that open spaces remain open forever. They also make possible a charitable deduction for the donor, so they are win/win situations for property owners and for communities wanting to protect their most sensitive and most scenic places.

 Beth praised Montevallo’s downtown area and encourage us to have “city-centered development” that would reduce sprawl into the countryside. This approach to development, she said, would protect the water systems at the same time that it improved the local economy. She urged Montevallo citizens and city leaders to call on the Birmingham Regional Planning Commission to help guide us in “green” development options.

 In discussing the value of cooperation in dealing with complex watershed issues, the audience pointed out the need for a countywide watershed protection effort that would recognize the common interests of participants in various communities. Beth recommended that Citizens For Montevallo invite a speaker from the Alabama Rivers Alliance to explain how to form a watershed protection group for this area. She also offered the resources of the Cahaba River Society (www.cahabariversociety.org).