RECLAIMING ESLAVA CREEK: A Journey Down Mobile’s Forgotten Drainage to the Bay

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As the rainiest city in America, Mobile depends on its creeks and rivers to drain storm water into the bay.

still1031_00005Eslava Creek is perhaps the most trashed and neglected of those creeks because it winds through some of the most densely populated areas of town and serves as a “catch-all” for litter dumped from nearby businesses, cars  zipping by on the roads above it, or tenants who live in the apartment complexes that neighbor it.

Day One

To get a better understanding of why Eslava Creek is perceived as the thorn in Mobile’s waterways, we decided to do something we haven’t seen anyone else do before. A team made up of Photojournalist Jason Garcia, Assignment Editor Brad Gunther, Drone Pilot Jim Johnson, and myself packed up two kayaks, 5 cameras, and a few odds and ends to travel from beginning to end of Eslava Creek.  still1031_00001

We soon found out, we weren’t even on the original creek.

still1031_00013“The more you study it, and the more you listen, you realize this isn’t how Eslava Creek used to be,” Botanical Gardens Executive Director Bill Finch told us. “ I can sort of read by looking at the plants how it used to be. Look, there’s a beautiful Thalia. I think those used to be in abundance in Eslava Creek. “

Finch explained that in the 1950s, the City drained Wragg Swamp to build Springdale Mall. Eslava Creek helped drain Wragg Swamp  and reached as far west as Grelot Road. However, when the swamp was filled in and the creek was shifted and urbanized to become a storm drain, it couldn’t handle the large amounts of rain pouring off of Springhill as the city continued to grow.wragg-swamp

“The trouble is, it’s an old lake bed. It’s already so low. It can’t channel any more water to Mobile Bay. It’s already nearly as low as Mobile Bay now,” Finch said.

still1031_00010Nearby businesses complain that the city isn’t doing its job because swamp plants fill the entire ditch, making the creek overflow after nearly every heavy rain storm. Finch argues that removing the plants wouldn’t help much.springdale-mall

“If you cleaned it out, it wouldn’t make much difference. It’s not going to make any significant difference because the water’s coming from so many different directions. It’s too small a creek to manage a gigantic swamp,” Finch said.

Nonetheless, the overgrowth of plants made for a difficult and long journey for our team, only allowing us to travel roughly half a mile on our first day.

Day Two

Eslava Creek, in many spots, is a mess of overgrowth, only safely passable by our drone that flies over a neglected stretch along Dauphin Street. That’s where News 5 Assignment Editor Brad Gunther and I climb back into the kayaks and continue our journey. 14923124_10209299165968869_480804327_o

“What is that?,”I asked as I looked up at the bank to see several plastic jugs scattered throughout the brush. “De-greaser containers. Heavy-duty degreaser containers,” Brad said, pointing out that these jugs were most likely thrown out by an employee of one or more of the fast-food restaurants a few feet away.

Across Dauphin Street, the water’s shallow again. But, unfortunately for me, not shallow enough and water seeps into my thigh-high rain boats, soaking my socks.

Above us, Jim Johnson flies a drone camera to show we’re right behind the Cracker Barrel and the Walmart; not where’d you’d expect to catch a fish. But, Brad pulls out the fishing poles and drops a line into the water. Seconds later, he pulls a tiny Blue Gill out of the oil-slicked water. Not much of a fish….but a fish nonetheless.

“Ugh. You made it look so easy!” I told him with frustration as I took my turn waiting for a fish to nibble.

After several painstakingly long minutes, I finally pulled one out of the water, only to shake the line too much with excitement and send him flying back down below.

“I just got too excited! I lost him!” I told Brad.

Soon, we’re joined by Casi Callaway, Executive Director of Mobile Baykeeper. She tells us some of the major issues she sees on this portion of Eslava Creek.

“Heat from the roadways. The heat from the highway and the parking lots spill into here. Oils and greases from our cars sitting in the parking lots do too. It adds a triple layer of pollution,” Callaway told us.

“If we do nothing, it will just continue to look like this times 10. More pollution problems. More issues. More sewer spills and more litter. How can a community love and understand waterways if this is the one they see and they only ever think of it as a ditch? This is a river, it’s not a ditch.”

For Casi, making improvements starts with a new mindset. “Stop looking at this as a roadside ditch. Start recognizing as you drive along beside it, you’re looking at a river,” she said.

Before we say goodbye, we take a moment to clean up. It doesn’t make much of a dent, but it’s a good place to start. Remember each beer bottle, plastic bag, or styrofoam cup will eventually find it’s way into Mobile Bay if we don’t start reclaiming the creek leading into it.

Day Three

Eslava Creek winds behind Springdale Mall, the shopping center built in the 1950’s, replacing Wragg Swamp and the original creek with brick and mortar.

Decades later, the mall is nearly empty, save for a few stores that haven’t moved across the street to the new McGowin Park shopping center, and the creek neighboring it is a dumping ground for anything and everything that’s tossed in the parking lot.

14423748_10208947115487827_1823264739_o“I’m finally starting to get the hang of getting in and getting out,” News 5 Assignment Editor Brad Gunther grunts as we climb into our kayaks to continue our journey.

As we paddle behind the mall, we pass by a couple rusty shopping carts partially underwater and a fully intact styrofoam cooler, packed with someone’s once-appealing lunch of potato chips, a half-eaten sandwich, and a bottle of Coke.

“You can see how high the water gets here after it rains by looking at all that trash caught up in the trees,” Brad says as he uses his paddle as a pointer.

Meanwhile, drone pilot Jim Johnson flies a drone camera above us, capturing what looks like an abandoned homeless camp on the bank. It’s one heavy rainstorm away from washing into the creek that seems to have more and more ways of reminding us, it’s not a ditch.

“Brad! Look! Oh my Gosh! Is that a crawfish? It’s a crawfish!” I scream, towards a tiny moving splash of water in front of us.

Brad hops out with one of the GOPRO’s to get video before it disappears down the tunnel that runs under Airport Boulevard.

“Must have been a lucky crawfish boil survivor,” I joked as Jim flies the drone towards Bel-Air Boulevard where we meet back up to continue our trip.

Compared to our comical attempt at fishing behind Walmart, this stretch of creek offers a much wider selection of fish to choose from.

Brad can’t resist casting a line but doesn’t have much luck catching anything bigger than a few inches long.

After passing under Cottage Hill Road, we can’t paddle any further thanks to a man-made spillway, so Jim takes over with the drone, while we get out to talk to Christian Miller (Mobile Bay Natural Estuary Program) and Lee Walters ( Goodwyn Mills & Cawood).

Christian and Lee are part of a team who’ve spent the last several months studying the entire Dog River Watershed, including Eslava Creek, to create a sort of “blueprint” of possible solutions to many of the issues we’ve noticed ourselves.

“The whole purpose of this planning effort is to come up with a suite of projects, we can later go back and implement,” they explain. “The Dog River Watershed Management Plan is really just a blueprint that identifies what those projects are and prioritizes them so we have the opportunity to come back and ask for more money”

It always comes down to money doesn’t it?  Miller explains that there have been watershed management plans like theirs before, but the difference now is money. They’ll hope to pull from BP Settlement money, ADEM, nonprofits, grants, and the list goes on.

Walter adds that current city leaders, including the mayor’s administration, have been supportive of investing in solutions.

“We’re looking for some offline areas that we can do some storm water treatment, so when these big rains come, if you do have areas that are outside this urbanized area, you can go and kind of slow this water down a little,” Walter explains some of their ideas

 “Urbanization is one of those things you can’t really stop. People have developed this area for a certain reason, and there are areas that are not developed today that will be probably be developed down the road. So, a lot of the problems we’re seeing with storm water management, whether it’s sediment or nutrients or trash, that problem’s going to remain and get worse if nothing’s done.”

They still have a couple months left of the studying phase, before they’re ready to present their plans to city leaders, but are optimistic that this could be a big turning point for the creek and the entire Dog River Watershed as a whole.

“We were in the estuary portion yesterday, and it’s beautiful, but when you get up on this end, people lose that perception,” Walters said. “Hopefully, by just connecting the dots that whatever happens in the headwaters will eventually make its way down to the estuary and Mobile Bay will help.

For more detailed information on the Dog River Watershed Management Plan, you can visit the Mobile Bay Natural Estuary Program website.

Day Four

Embarking on the fourth day of our journey down Eslava Creek, News 5 Assignment Editor Brad Gunther and I put the kayaks in near the Greyhound bus station on Government Boulevard.

“Wow! you can see straight down to the bottom!” I say, realizing this is the clearest  water we’ve seen so far.

“That’s a nice size bass!” Brad points out with his paddle.

As Jim Johnson flies a drone camera overhead, the clear water glistens in the sun, but we all know that during heavy rain storms, Eslava Creek is sometimes clouded with sewer spills. It’s a major issue Mobile Area Water and Sewer System ( MAWSS) Director Charles Hyland wants to fix.

day-4-eslava“We are dealing with an aging infrastructure, and when we have heavy rainfalls, we do have sanitary sewer overflows that get into Eslava Creek,” Hyland said. “We’re making progress, but we still have a ways to go. As long as we have overflows that get into the creek, obviously, we’re not satisfied. We want to work toward reducing that.”

He said while they have plenty of work to do on their end, customers should look at their own aging pipes too. “If people can make sure their sewer lines are in good shape that run from their house out to the street to where our line is. And one way they can do that is to make sure their sewer clean-out cap is in good condition and properly installed. ”

Doug Cote, Assistant Director of Operations at MAWS, said people may not realize it, but improving conditions on Eslava Creek is on their priority list.

“We’re actually studying it very closely,” Cote said, explaining that they’re taking three different approaches towards a solution, not just for Eslava Creek, but  for their entire service area.

First, Cote said they want to look at the aging pipes underground to refit or replace the ones that are leaking or  having issues.

“When we talk about infrastructure,we’re talking about systems that have values in the hundreds of millions of dollars,”Cote said. “When we talk about renewing infrastructure, we’re talking about very large costs and looking at it long term.”

In the more short-term future, Cote said they’re looking at expanding some of the storage capabilities for the water flowing through their pipes, so the system isn’t overwhelmed when stormwater floods in during heavy rain storms.

“Where I see us in three years is hopefully having constructed some major changes in sewer capacity and also storage,” Cote said.

Cote said at the upper end of Eslava Creek, where Brad and I first started our journey, they’re already starting ‘smoke tests’ to see where they need to expand their storage or make other adjustments.

The final step in their solution is to bring in outside help to conduct a study over all of their assets throughout the service area.

” We’re going to be bringing in the best minds and engineers in the country,” Cote said. “Mobile Area Water and Sewer is on a track to do some really good things in regard to reducing SSOs (Sanitary Sewer Overflows)”

 

As Brad and I continue paddling, it’s comforting to think the creek is becoming a priority, not just for MAWSS, but the City of Mobile as well.

“When Mayor Stimpson first stepped into office, ADEM actually said we were the posterchild for storm water mismanagement,” city spokesperson Laura Byrne said. “We know that we have a long way to our goal, but our goal is to be the posterchild of storm water excellence.”

Byrne said the city recently approved a design contract to outfit many of the open  storm drains we’ve seen with catch basins.

“If you put a catch basin in it {storm drain} then some of the muck that comes through there will be caught, and they’ll be cleaned out on a regular basis,” Byrne said. Designing a solution is one thing, but funding it? That’s something that will have to come further downstream.

“This has to remain a focus. This has to remain a priority. We know from a city perspective that it’s a priority for us, but it also needs to be a priority for the entire community,” Byrne said. “We want the entire community to rally behind the fact that we want to be a cleaner city and a thriving city because of that.”

From Holcombe Avenue to McVay, Brad and I are on our own. There aren’t any major roads lining the creek for photojournalist Jason Garcia to travel, so our only company is the drone that buzzes overhead.

It’s the only buzzing we’ve heard this entire trip, which strikes us as odd because we thought we’d have to battle the mosquitos along the way.

Turns out, mosquitos don’t thrive in Eslava Creek, according to Jerry Folse at Mobile County Health Department’s Vector Control

“We’ve looked at it throughout the years and couldn’t find anything,” Folse said.

He points out that all the minnows we’ve seen zipping around the surface feed on mosquitos.

“We actually, in years past, have gone to portions of Eslava Creek and some of the other bodies of water and caught minnows to help in our mosquito control,” Folse said.

Afte what seems like hours, Brad and I finally see the tall  pillars of the litter trap, a sign we finally made it to McVay where we can pull the kayaks out.

The creek may be a working progress, but the litter trap is one milestone you can see that shows promise of one day reclaiming Eslava Creek.

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