Valley Creek, Renew Our Rivers cleanup reaps trash and fellowship

Valley Creek, Renew Our Rivers cleanup reaps trash and fellowship
One of several crews working on this year's Valley Creek cleanup gathers around a pile of trash removed from the creek at Johns Road in Hueytown. (Jefferson County Department of Public Health)

It was another hot August week in Alabama, but that didn’t discourage 250 volunteers, city and public agency workers, and nonprofit supporters from making a positive environmental impact on Valley Creek in Jefferson County.

The seventh annual Valley Creek cleanup drew volunteers to seven locations along the waterway in western areas of the county, including spots within the city limits of Bessemer, Birmingham, Brighton, Lipscomb and Midfield. Together, they picked up multiple dumpster-loads of trash from roadsides near the creek, and from the creek itself.

In the days leading up to Saturday’s volunteer day, area municipalities and Jefferson County put their resources toward removing some of the bigger and heavier items that end up in the creek, including old tires, shopping carts and piles of scrap metal.

Saturday’s volunteer forces were formed from more than a dozen educational institutions and organizations and included students from Bessemer, Fairfield, Midfield and Oak Grove high schools and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as well as fraternity and sorority alumni groups.

Multiple cities support the cleanup every year, along with the Jefferson County Department of Public Health, the nonprofit Freshwater Land Trust, Alabama Power and the affiliated Renew Our Rivers campaign, Home Depot, and residents from across the county.

“The turnout was amazing,” said Jonika Smith, an environmental health specialist with Jefferson County Public Health who helps coordinate the event. “We originally planned to have five locations. Then we added two more cleanup sites.

“We continue to see that community involvement,” Smith added. “It’s so hands-on – It really is a community partnership, driven by the community volunteers.”

Organizers were still tallying the take from last week’s cleanup, but it is expected to add significantly to the cumulative haul from the past six events. Excluding this year, volunteers have removed more than 110 tons of trash and debris from Valley Creek since 2011.

Freshwater Land Trust offers bird’s eye view of Valley Creek cleanup in Midfield from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The 46-mile Valley Creek originates underground in downtown Birmingham and runs west for about 2 miles before rising to the surface near Legion Field. From there it meanders southwest and then northwest through multiple municipalities and unincorporated Jefferson County before flowing into the Black Warrior River.

According to the online site BhamWiki, Birmingham’s first sewer system, a 15-mile labyrinth of brick tunnels built in the 1880s, dumped directly into Valley Creek. And while the intentional flow of sewage into the creek has long ceased, its location – in the heart of urbanized metro Birmingham – poses ongoing environmental challenges for the waterway’s health.

Today, it’s rainwater runoff from the creek’s 257-square-mile watershed that pushes trash and pollutants – such as motor oil from city streets, and over-applied pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer from backyards – toward the creek.

Despite these ongoing issues, Valley Creek is home to numerous aquatic animals, and is a nesting location for a variety of birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. And ongoing efforts by multiple organizations, including the annual cleanup, are helping to improve water quality and habitat along the creek.

Next year, the Valley Creek cleanup is expected to move to springtime, Smith said, and will include a broader emphasis on education. For example, plans are in the works to add a video competition, pitting the eight high schools in the creek’s watershed against each other in a friendly artistic and social media battle. The most-watched videos could later become part of a public education and awareness campaign about Valley Creek and the efforts to improve it.

To stay abreast of those efforts, including developing plans for the March 2018 cleanup, visit the Jefferson County Department of Public Health website at www.jcdh.org and search for “Valley Creek.”

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