The abundance of its creeks and rivers is one of the most distinctive features and greatest natural resources of Alabama. While the state’s streams wander the landscape in many directions, all eventually flow to the coast. A watershed is all the land surrounding a stream that supplies it with surface and ground water throughout the year. With all locations in the state contributing water, sediments and nutrients to a nearby stream, all places in the state are connected to the great Gulf of Mexico to the south.
Rain, ice, or snow falling on Vulcan Park and Museum (VPAM) can take two different journeys across Alabama to the Gulf of Mexico. The southeast slopes of Red Mountain at the park belong to the Shades Creek watershed. Shades Creek is one of the major tributaries to the upper Cahaba River, joining it where the river crosses from Shelby into Bibb County 25 miles southwest from the park. The Cahaba watershed is located entirely within central Alabama, and is the only free-flowing river of its size in the state. The Cahaba is famous as one of the most biologically rich rivers in all of North America, hosting over 130 fish species and dozens of rare and endangered mussel, snail, and crayfish species. The Cahaba is also the source for about 25% of Alabama’s drinking water, with much of that going to the Birmingham metropolitan area. The river itself ends when it joins the Alabama River near Selma, AL.
In contrast, the northwest slopes of Red Mountain at VPAM drain to Valley Creek. Valley Creek meanders westward from downtown Birmingham before joining the Black Warrior River 25 miles west of VPAM. Like the Cahaba Watershed, the Black Warrior watershed also lies entirely within Alabama. The river is formed at the confluence of the Locust Fork and Mulberry Fork, at a point 20 miles west of Birmingham. The river and its watershed are home to a great many of Alabama’s aquatic species, historically hosting 119 fish and 51 mussel species. The Black Warrior is also an important source of drinking water for the Birmingham Metropolitan area. The Black Warrior joins the Tombigbee River at Demopolis, AL, and the larger Tombigbee continues south and receives the Alabama River just 35 miles north of Mobile, AL. It is there that waters falling on the northwest and southeast slopes of Red Mountain can be reunited before completing the final leg of their journey through the Mobile River Delta and Mobile Bay, and finally joining the Gulf of Mexico. As major players in provisioning freshwater to the coast, the Black Warrior and Alabama Rivers significantly affect the health and ecology of Mobile Bay and nearby portions of the Gulf of Mexico.