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Groups sue Birmingham Water Works Board over land critical to city’s water supply

The lawsuit seeks a court order for the water board to meet the terms of a 2001 settlement agreement and permanently protect the lands.

Southern Environmental Law Center

A lawsuit filed on Monday seeks a judge’s help in enforcing a settlement agreement with the Birmingham Water Works Board to protect the lands and waterways that supply Birmingham’s drinking water. 

“We are hoping to get the waterworks board to fulfill their promises under the 2001 settlement agreement,” said Sarah Stokes, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, speaking to APR on Monday. The SELC filed the civil suit in the Jefferson County Circuit Court on behalf of Cahaba River Society & Cahaba Riverkeeper. 

Instead of protecting the land and forests around Lake Purdy, the Little Cahaba and the Cahaba River, as the 20-year-old settlement agreement requires, the water board has sold some of the land and discussed selling more, the complaint states. 

As part of the 2001 settlement agreement, which concluded a lawsuit over control of the board and its assets, the water board agreed to then Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor’s request to place a conservation easement around certain land around Lake Purdy, the Little Cahaba and the Cahaba River to “permanently” protect the land from development, according to the complaint. 

“Lake Purdy and the little Cahaba and the Cahaba river are all critical to the drinking water source,” said Beth Stewart, executive director of the Cahaba River Society, speaking to APR on Monday. “It’s often more than half of the Birmingham water board’s entire system supply.” 

Development of those lands robs the area of the natural land’s ability to filter rainwater, which feeds into the rivers, and contaminated runoff from developed lands pollutes the water further, Stewart explained. 

In 2017 the board did record a “Conservation Easement Agreement” but, according to the complaint, that agreement is not valid, and does not protect the lands or waterways.  

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“Under Alabama law, a “conservation easement” must be held by a third-party, and the third-party must be a charitable or a governmental body. Under the 2017 agreement, the Board held the interest to the “conservation easement” on its own land,” the lawsuit states. “Further, the Board is a public corporation, not a charitable or government body, and accordingly it cannot hold a conservation easement.”

“Additionally, the 2017 agreement did not create permanent protection of the land. Any protection ends in thirty years (2051), and the Board retains authority under the recorded document to sell the property at any time. And, in fact, according to past Board meeting minutes, the Board has both seriously considered selling part of this land   multiple times, and has actually sold some of it,” the complaint continues. 

Attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote in the complaint that in 2016 the water board discussed selling part of the protected land, located on Sicard Hollow Road,  for possible subdivisions. 

“The Board called this land “excess” property. The Board surveyed the land, assessed the land, and even hired a realty company for three years to try and sell the land,” according to the court filing. “A different parcel subject to the settlement agreement was sold for a gas station after unanimous approval by the Board on April 27, 2016.” 

“Birmingham Water Works is committed to providing the highest quality water to our entire service area,” said water bard spokesman Rick Jackson, in a message to APR Tuesday morning. “We have a long track record of fighting to protect all our various sources of water supply, including all the lands surrounding Lake Purdy and the Cahaba River. Our attorneys are in the process of reviewing this lawsuit and will take the appropriate action to properly respond to it in court.” 

The lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment against the water board, and for the court to require the board to create a conservation easement that complies with state law.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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