david butler

Riverkeeper David Butler stands in front of the Cahaba River in Alabama

The headwaters of the Cahaba River form northeast of Birmingham and the river flows 191 miles southwest until it joins the Alabama River, near the town of Selma.

Tourists travel to the Cahaba to canoe and fish beneath the trees that line both sides of the river.

The river attracts environmentalists from around the country, who visit it to view a distinct species of waterlily found in abundance in one portion of the river. Known in the state as the Cahaba lily, the plant sprouts in the shallow rapids near West Blocton, shooting bright white flowers attached to long stems from clumps of river grass.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service created the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge in 2002, to protect the lily.

The riverkeeper

David Butler, 39, is the riverkeeper of the Cahaba River. He patrols the river by foot, canoe and plane to identify dangerous industrial runoff that feeds into the river. Municipalities and factories maintain wastewater facilities that dump treated water into the river. Butler takes samples of the Cahaba River at different points and tests the bacteria content of each sample.

In September and October, two oil spills on the Colonial Pipeline threatened to leak thousands of gallons of oil into the river and Butler helped lead the containment effort.

Butler grew up in Hopkinsville, in a house on the banks of Little River. He spent his days fishing and collecting treasures from the river, spending countless hours exploring the river’s secrets.

“My parents used to turn us loose with all the kids in the neighborhood,” he said. “That was kind of where I got my love and infatuation with rivers.”

Butler graduated from Hopkinsville High School in 1995. He studied finance at the University of Kentucky for two years, before an internship at Jag Media in New York City lead to a job offer.

He dropped out of college to work on a show called “Jag TV,” which streamed financial information over the internet eight hours each day. Most people at that time still had dial-up.

The company had previously faxed financial information to companies before the internet changed its business model. Butler traveled around the world, recruiting financial experts to contribute to the show.

Butler found the constant work, and lifestyle of the big city draining. He wanted the occasional chance to escape from human contact. Even going to the beach near his home in Red Bank, N.J., Butler could barely find a spot among the human bodies to lay down his towel.

“It wasn’t like (Birmingham) where I can drive out to a park and walk off into the woods and be on my own,” Butler said.

The Cahaba River provides plenty of opportunity for a lone wanderer to spend hours exploring without seeing another person. The river has many hidden treasures a careful observer may find. The Auburn University Water Research Center reports the river contains 69 rare and imperiled species, including many snails and mussels found nowhere else in the world.

Fans of the Cahaba River like to point out that more species of fish exist in the Cahaba than in the whole state of California.

Family tragedy

A tragedy prompted Butler to return to his hometown. In 2000, Butler’s younger brother Randy was murdered by his friend.

“I talked to him the day it happened and I got a phone call that night and my world sort of changed at that point,” Butler said.

He wanted to be closer to his family, he said, and he wanted to be able to enjoy the time he got off from work.

After his brother’s death, Butler and the rest of his family moved to Birmingham. Butler returned to college at the University of Alabama, studying journalism, graduating within a year. He entered the workforce at a time when the newspaper industry began to implode. Unable to find a job in journalism, he gave canoe tours of the Cahaba River with an outfitter, and started a freelance photography business.

More and more, Butler volunteered with local environmentalists who monitored the river. Eventually, the local Riverkeeper association asked him to take over as the official keeper of the Cahaba.

Sometimes, the amount of E.coli at certain points in the river makes swimming hazardous. Industrial runoff can endanger local wildlife. When Butler or a volunteer finds a part of the river where industrial or municipal runoff has exceeded the allowable amount of bacteria, he notifies both the violator and government authorities of the violation.

Oil spill

When the Colonial Pipeline first sprung a leak in September, Butler patrolled the river near the site of the leak, to make sure no oil made its way from the site of the spill to the water. He said the oil spilled into a retention pond, which was unseasonably low due to a drought the area had undergone.

The second spill, on Halloween afternoon, was totally different.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported pipeline workers backed a track hoe into the pipeline while conducting repairs, which caused the pipe to explode. Homeowners felt the shock a mile away. A pillar of fire could be seen over the trees in front of the pipe by first responders. The explosion killed one worker and injured four others.

Within 30 minutes, Butler said, Colonial had called him to help organize the response. The explosion happened near the only habitat of the oblong rocksnail, which was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 2011.

Butler told the pipeline company which parts of the river were most at risk, and which paths the oil could take to reach the river. He said the company worked well with the environmentalists, preventing undue harm from occurring.

The national media picked up the story, but focused on a topic Butler didn’t expect.

“The whole national story was about how the price of gas went up 15 cents a gallon,” he said.

Journalists from around the world interviewed Butler about the effects of the spill, reporting on the story in French and Spanish. Butler hoped they had translated his comments accurately. The media’s focus on the price of gasoline frustrated Butler.

“It reminded me that, as much as I care about what I care about, the vast majority of people want to go to the gas station, fill up their car and be on their way,” he said.

Changing perspective

Being the Cahaba riverkeeper has come with some unintended consequences. When Butler canoes down the river, he no longer sees the natural landscape like he used to. What sticks out to him now are the unnatural additions to the river, like a runoff pipe or land development on the riverbank.

“I’m more hyper aware of all those problems than I used to be so it can be tremendously disappointing,” he said.

He said he has considered living off the land in Alaska, but that would take him too far away from his family. Purchasing a couple of acres of land somewhere close to Birmingham is a more reasonable compromise.

In Birmingham, Butler lives with his wife, Susan Butler (Dade), and his two children, Jacob and Allison. He has witnessed the rapid development of the Birmingham Municipal Area in recent years and struggles to come to terms with the rate of progress. He has lobbied on behalf of the environment to state policymakers. In the development-friendly state of Alabama, environmental concerns sometimes take a back seat to economic stimulation.

“There’s a lot of profit to be had in developing and there’s not a lot of profit to be had in conserving,” he said. “And sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, but we sort of have these incremental victories and monumental defeats.”

He said he realizes people need jobs and cities should provide opportunity for citizens, but there should be a balance between municipal expansion and environmental concerns. He thinks environmentalists and developers can get along.

“People kind of view the work that we do as extreme environmentalism,” Butler said, “but I consider myself an open minded person and I think I operate on facts and science.”

Reach Sam Morgen at 270-887-3241 or smorgen@kentuckynewera.com

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