Purchase of land protects Weeks Bay from Baldwin County development

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In an effort to mitigate the environmental impacts of increasing development in Baldwin County, the Weeks Bay Estuarine National Research Preserve recently added three new parcels of land, totaling approximately 314 acres.

The new land will mitigate the effects of development in the area and provide hurricane protection.

“In two of the cases, [the land parcels] were a confluence of two bodies of water that came together, said Will Underwood, administrator of the coastal section of the reserve. “And [they were] in areas that didn’t yet have much development on them and have the potential to be highly developed. And these areas basically provide a buffer.

The plots were purchased earlier this year from private, willing sellers for approximately $9.2 million in total. One parcel of land is on Waterhole Branch and Green Branch off Fish River, one on Magnolia River, and one on the east side of the mouth of Weeks Bay. The land will be restored by Weeks Bay employees — native species reintroduced, non-native species removed — and then largely left alone, apart from maintenance and research, Underwood said.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources worked with the South Alabama Land Trust to acquire the new parcels of land. The land was bought in part with money from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement.

ADCNR and the South Alabama Land Trust worked with federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to assess the impact of the 2010 oil spill on southern Alabama and how the environment natural could be restored. The South Alabama Land Trust had recommended the land be purchased as part of that appraisal, Underwood said.

Acquiring the land is important as Baldwin County continues to grow, Underwood says. Increased development in areas means more rainfall runoff passing through the watershed. The preserved earth will capture the water as it flows downstream, absorbing it into the ground, which will filter out the pollutants. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, storm runoff is a major contributor to the pollution of waterways, particularly fertilizer runoff and runoff from construction sites.

“Protecting habitats that are right on shore just provides a buffer that allows more infiltration of that surface water, gives them more time to infiltrate, moving provides a buffer to the river system,” said Underwood.

Additionally, preserving the wetland habitat around Weeks Bay helps mitigate the impact of hurricanes and tropical storms, Underwood says. Swamps absorb much of a storm’s energy, weakening it and reducing the storm surge. According to NOAA, due to climate change, hurricanes are expected to become stronger over the next century.

As sea levels continue to rise due to climate change, Underwood says he’s watched the reserve’s natural environment change. The marshes have slowly migrated back due to the changing water table, and Weeks Bay’s shoreline is more indented than before. But Underwood hopes that preserving the land will help mitigate the effects of climate change for a long time.

“These patches and the existing holdings here also provide space for migration,” Underwood said. “So they provide that space that the swamp can adapt over time. And our management, we work hard to try to manage the land in a way that facilitates that as well.

Weeks Bay Reserve is one of 30 estuarine reserves in the country. The reserve covers approximately 9,300 acres, including pitcher bogs, hardwood forests and marshes. Weeks Bay has federal and state protection and serves as a research reserve, and researchers monitor water quality at several locations around the reserve. This information is published on the NOAA website.

Margaret Kates reports from Mobile for the Lede.

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