Birmingham Water Works
The Birmingham Water Works is a public utility supplying drinking water to 750,000 customers in Birmingham, most of Jefferson County and parts of four other counties. The system, established in 1951, delivers 100 million gallons of water per day over 3,858 miles of main pipes. It has been recognized as one of the top five water systems in the United States and rates consistently high in water quality.
The city's first water reservoirs, pump stations and distribution systems were constructed and maintained by the Elyton Land Company. In 1888 the city signed a 30-year contract with the American Waterworks and Guaranty Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to maintain and operate the municipal water system, with individual users paying a relatively high fixed fee. Over time complaints about the fee and quality of the system arose. In 1900 Mayor Mel Drennen called for ending the contract and putting the system under public control. He had the support of the Birmingham Board of Aldermen and the Birmingham Board of Trade, but was opposed by the Birmingham News and the Commercial Club of Birmingham.
By 1903, however, the Commercial Club changed its position, claiming that the slow expansion of water service was to blame for failed recruitment of new industrial plants. A joint committee of the Commercial Club and Board of Trade recommended that both Birmingham and Jefferson County should pursue public water utilities. In January 1907 a newly-formed Birmingham Municipal Ownership League promoted a public referendum for a $3 million bond issue to purchase or construct the necessary plants and infrastructure. Voters were promised lower rates and a petition with more than 750 signatures was delivered to the Birmingham Board of Aldermen. At this time, though, the board declined to pursue the matter. A new committee began approaching members of the Alabama State Legislature to lobby for a bill allowing the city to operate both a water system and an electrical utility. The News publicized the benefits that came to other cities that had shed their private water contracts and labor groups applied additional pressure at City Hall. Negotiations with the American Waterworks and Guaranty Company began in 1912, but after a series of threats, the only result was a new 25-year contract with lowered rates, which was overwhelmingly voted down in a public referendum. The Board of Aldermen passed a resolution attempting to set its own rates, but the company ignored the move and filed a federal suit. The Municipal Ownership League joined with the Birmingham City Attorney to prepare a series of countersuits, even encouraging individual customers to take legal action. A Water Consumers Protective Association was formed to organize public opposition. Various suits proceeded in the courts, resulting in a settled agreement by which rates would be lowered and a joint appraisal committee would determine a fair purchase price for the system. Subsequent disagreement arose about whether to pay the asking price or use bond money to construct a new system from scratch.
Birmingham Water Works acquired the water system developed by the city of Moody in St Clair County in 1992. The Birmingham Water Works began operating under an independent board in 2001, and since that time water service rates have doubled. The growing reputation for misuse of funds and the awarding of non-competitive contracts led to efforts in the Alabama State Legislature to "reform" the board in 2016. Representative Paul DeMarco and State Senator Jabo Waggoner sponsored controversial legislation, which was debated at length before a compromise version was passed and signed by Governor Robert Bentley in May 2016.
Until 2009 the Water Works owned 3,200 acres of undeveloped property bordering the Locust Fork River in anticipation of constructing a reservoir. The board determined that the project was not feasible and sold the land for $4.5 million to Jeffrey Palmer. Palmer made a $500,000 donation to the H2O Foundation and agreed to accept contract stipulations preventing clear-cutting, coal-mining, landfills and hazardous waste storage. He agreed to maintain a 50-foot buffer around all tributaries on the land and also indicated he would create a conservation easement on the land abutting the river. A 2001 order from the Attorney General of Alabama interprets a consent decree which requires the Water Works to dedicate permanent conservation easements on approximately 6,000 acres of property in the Cahaba watershed. The board considers its ownership to meet that standard, but a lawsuit filed by the Cahaba River Society and Cahaba Riverkeeper dispute whether the protections are sufficient.
On February 12, 2009 the board approved a $329 million expansion plan to cover capital projects over the next 12-15 years. The plan called for a new pump station on the Black Warrior River, about three miles south of Bankhead Lock and Dam, and two pipelines, adding 60 million gallons per day to the system's capacity. The expansion was proposed to accommodate projected demand through 2075. At the same time, the system began a switch-over to SAP enterprise application software, the implementation of which cost more than $10 million and was still causing major problems when it was applied to customer billing in 2017.
In 2010 the Board hired Raftelis Financial Consultants to report on the feasibility of the system acquiring the Jefferson County Sewer System out of a possible bankruptcy. The report recommended against the purchase, concluding that rates would have to be increased too much to be worthwhile. Four years later it asked Raftelis to evaluate a proposal to sell off the Moody water system.
In 2011 the utility approved the first of several bids to replace aging water mains throughout its service area. In 2021 the utility was awarded a $147 million low-interest loans from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program. The loans are expected to fund rehabilitation projects at the Lake Purdy Dam and to repair and replace storage tanks and water mains.
The Birmingham Water Works Board consists of nine members, who can serve no more than two four-year terms. Six of the members are appointed by the Birmingham City Council, one by the Jefferson County Mayor's Association, one by the Shelby County Commission and one by the Blount County Commission.
From the time the independent board was created in 2001 until it was modified by the Alabama State Legislature in 2016, the board had five members which were appointed to staggered six-year terms by the Birmingham City Council.
Assistant general managers
Black Warrior Basin
- Sipsey Fork
- Mulberry Fork
- Inland Lake / Blackburn Fork
- Village Creek (1873 - 1887)
- Five Mile Creek (1887 - 1938)
- North Birmingham Water Works (1873-1938)
- Cahaba Pump Station (1890 - present)
- Inland Pump Station
- Western Filter Plant
- H. Y. Carson Filter Plant (1972- present)
- Putnam Station Filter Plant
- Shades Mountain Filter Plant
- Mulberry Intake Station
- Sipsey Intake Station
- Birmingham Water Works Tunnel
- LaMonte, Edward Shannon (1995) Politics and Welfare in Birmingham, 1900—1975. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press ISBN 0817307540
- "Water Works Board approves $90 million bond sale for capital projects" (April 5, 2006) Birmingham Business Journal
- Bryant, Joseph D. (February 13, 2008) "Birmingham, Alabama Water Works Board approves $239 million plan to extend capacity." The Birmingham News
- Spencer, Thomas (August 21, 2009) "Birmingham Water Works Board votes to sell its 3,200 acres on the Locust Fork River to Tuscaloosa businessman Jeffrey Todd Palmer in a $5 million deal." The Birmingham News
- Archibald, John (January 22, 2010) "Coup topples Water Works duo." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (October 21, 2010) "Birmingham Water Works study rules out plan to buy sewer." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (March 14, 2011) "Major pipe replacement project begun by Birmingham Water Works." The Birmingham News
- Archibald, John (August 14, 2013) "Birmingham Water Works employees shine light in ugly places." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (February 28, 2014) "Birmingham Water Works Board spending up to $58,000 to study selling Moody water system, more analyses also needed." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (May 14, 2015) "Birmingham Water Works changes take effect today following governor's signing of legislation." The Birmingham News
- Faulk, Kent (December 11, 2015) "Birmingham Water Works fires lawyer after three decades, millions of dollars." The Birmingham News
- Archibald, John (February 8, 2017) "Water Works spends millions, enrages customers, finally admits 'issues'." The Birmingham News
- Pillion, Dennis (January 13, 2021) "Birmingham Water Works gets $147 million EPA loan to fix aging infrastructure." The Birmingham News
- Prickett, Sam (June 16, 2021) "Environmental Groups Appeal Judge’s Cahaba River Ruling to the Supreme Court" BirminghamWatch
- Birmingham Water Works website