Land purchase protects Weeks Bay from Baldwin County

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

The new land will mitigate the effects of development in the area, as well as provide protection in the event of a hurricane.

“In two of the cases, [the land parcels] were a confluence of two water bodies coming together,” Will Underwood, coastal section administrator for the reserve, said. “And [they were] in areas that still did not have a large amount of development on them that have potential to be highly developed. And those areas basically provide a buffer.”

The parcels were purchased earlier this year from private and willing sellers for around $9.2 million total. One parcel of land sits on Waterhole Branch and Green Branch off Fish River, one sits on Magnolia River and one sits on the east side of the mouth of Weeks Bay. The land will be restored by Weeks Bay employees—native species re-introduced, non-native species gotten rid of—and then largely left alone, outside of 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 lands were purchased in part using 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 how the 2010 oil spill impacted south Alabama and how the natural environment could be restored. The South Alabama Land Trust had recommended these lands for purchase as part of that assessment, Underwood said.

Acquiring the land is important as Baldwin County continues to develop, Underwood says. Increased development in the areas means more storm runoff coming through the watershed. The preserved land will catch the water as it flows downstream, absorbing it into the ground, which filters out pollutants. Storm runoff is a big factor in polluting waterways, particularly fertilizer runoff and runoff from construction sites, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Protecting those habitats that are right on the shoreline just provides a buffer that allows for more of that infiltration of that surface water, gives them more time to percolate in, the displacement provides a buffer to the river system,” Underwood said.

In addition, preserving the marsh habitat around Weeks Bay helps to lessen the impact of hurricanes and tropical storms, Underwood says. Marshes absorb a lot of the energy from a storm, weakening it and lowering storm surge. According to the NOAA, because of climate change, hurricanes are projected to become stronger over the next century.

As sea levels continue to rise because of climate change, Underwood says he’s observed the reserve’s natural environment changing. Marshes have slowly migrated backwards because of the changing water table, and the shoreline of Weeks Bay is further back than it used to be. But Underwood hopes that preserving the land will help mitigate the effects of climate change for a long time.

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

The Weeks Bay Reserve is one of 30 estuarine reserves around the country. The reserve encompasses around 9,300 acres, including pitcher plant bogs, hardwood forests and marshes. Weeks Bay receives federal and state protection and serves as a research reserve, and researchers monitor the water qualify in several spots around the reserve. That information is posted on the NOAA website.

Margaret Kates reports from Mobile for the Lede.