Imagine a group of teenagers in a couple of canoes on a flowing creek in the middle of summer. After seeing an alligator, wading birds and other wildlife usually found in the deep wilderness, they round a bend in the creek and see another sight — the RSA tower in downtown Mobile.
That’s exactly what the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP) has envisioned for Three Mile Creek, which runs through the heart of the Port City and into Prichard.
The vision is a healthy and safe waterway flowing through Mobile, much like those seen in Chattanooga, Tenn., and on the Chickasabogue Creek in Chickasaw.
“We’re trying to convert what is currently a community liability, because of its degraded condition, into a community asset that’s celebrated,” said Tom Herder, Watershed Protection Coordinator for the MBNEP. “It has the potential to be a community center, running through the city and connecting different neighborhoods and parks along its path.”
Though the MBNEP and others are making strides towards improving the waterway, the process is still a long way from finished. Large amounts of trash from stormwater runoff currently litter parts of the creek.
Three Mile Creek’s best use designation from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management is “Agricultural and Industrial,” which requires the lowest environmental standards. Despite those low standards, it’s currently one of 238 waterways in Alabama listed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s 303 D list of impaired water bodies — the result of pathogens and dissolved oxygen detected in the creek.
The creek runs through several industrial areas and is bordered by Scotch Gulf Lumber, Mobile Gas and the Hickory Landfill. However, Herder said the average citizen is the main culprit of the creek’s pollution, not the corporations along its banks.
“Before the Clean Water Act of 1972, the biggest problem with national waterways was industrial effluence,” Herder said. “Most of the issues with urban waters now are stormwater related. The city streets and hard surfaces carry trash and debris into the water.”
He said a decaying infrastructure and illicit connections under the ground can also cause pollutants to find their way into the creek. The specific causes of such pollution and the ways to fix them will be outlined in a $250,000 watershed management plan, which has been developed by Dewberry Consultants over the past year. The MBNEP has already received grant funding from a hodgepodge of sources to pay for the plan, which will be published for public comment at the end May.
“Implementing the plan is going cost a lot more than $250,000. The price tag can be frightening, but it doesn’t have to be done at one time,” Herder said “It’s going to be a stepwise process over the next 20 years.”
The process is entirely dependent on community buy-in through public and private partnerships and additional grant funding.
Several entities, including the University of South Alabama, two of its medical campuses and the Mobile Infirmary, are located in close proximity to the creek. It also snakes its way by several areas of publicly owned land in Mobile and a small portion of Prichard.
The MBNEP has hired a resource development coordinator to work with industrial and civic leaders to form partnerships that could help bring the program’s dream to fruition.
Herder said stakeholders have a vested interest in the quality of Springhill Avenue, which curves almost in tandem with the creek.
“Everybody cares about Three Mile Creek, whether they know it or not,” Herder said. “When it’s improved, they’ll be able to ride bicycles, paddle a canoe or walk along a safe path that connects all the neighborhoods in Mobile, from downtown to the University, and why shouldn’t it be that way?”
The central location of the creek make it a prime area for such a community-based project, but its narrow width and small geography also make it excellent template for several urban waterways in need of improvement in Mobile.
The Dog River Watershed comprises about 100 square miles of waterway, which is more than three times larger than Three Mile Creek’s 30 square miles.
“These both have the same issues, but they’re concentrated in Three Mile Creek,” Herder said. “By its fairly small geography, it’s a perfect starting point for future work in other watersheds.”
Even though the creek is small, just adding the walking trails and public launches could cost what Herder estimates to be between $15 million to $20 million. That cost wouldn’t even begin to address the infrastructural changes needed for long-term sustainability, but it would be a start to bringing public interest back to the waterway.
The bends in creek reach far into several areas of the city, but there aren’t any easily accessible public launch points at this time. According to Herder, the city of Mobile has discussed adding a launch point at Tricentennial Park, but so far those plans haven’t developed.
The watershed management plan will only recommend and outline ways to rehabilitate the creek, which will likely include ways to clean up trash and preventing storm water runoff in the future.
In the long term, the public will determine how and if the project moves forward.
“There will be so many recommendations in the plan, and some will be lower hanging fruit,” Herder said. “We have to decide what the first thing we all agree we need to do is. We can always do the easy things first.”
More information on the Three Mile Creek project and the Estuary program’s other projects in Mobile is available at www.mobilebaynep.com.