Cleaning the bay is a regional issue

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Water knows no boundaries.

The water that eventually runs into Mobile Bay, and then the Gulf of Mexico, travels across 65 percent of the state of Alabama and portions of Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee, according to the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program. The Mobile Bay Estuary serves as a drainage system for 43,662 square miles, making it the sixth largest estuary in the nation, by area.

One of the last stops on that route is Fairhope, which nabbed the unenviable distinction of being named the dirtiest beach in Alabama this summer. A study by the Environment America Research and Policy Center showed that the beach had 21 days – the most of any Alabama beach, where the amount of fecal bacteria in the waves was more than the Environmental Protection Agency recommends.

City leaders received hate mail. The online skewering was demoralizing. And the city was partially to blame for some of the overflow and runoff gurgling out of its aging sewer systems and, in fact flowing, into bay waters.

However, Fairhope should not carry the blame alone.

As the water runs through four states and hundreds of cities and towns in that 43,662 square mile watershed, it runs through places where it is used for commercial fisheries, industry, tourism, recreation and coastal development. Pollutants, runoff and waste is dumped into the streams and rivers across those hundreds of miles and it all flows down toward the Gulf and some of it through Fairhope.

This week the first set of new sewer lines will be placed along Fairhope streets as part of a $10 million effort to replace and rehabilitate defective sewer lines in the city and stop overflows that happen when the current system becomes overrun with extra water during heavy rain events.

Within four years the city’s entire sewer system will be rehabilitated and ready to move the ever-increasing amounts of wastewater that accompany the ever-increasing number of houses being built within city limits.

The city’s leadership has taken the opportunity to be proactive and do their part to work toward a cleaner bay.

But they can’t do it alone.

Even if the city of Fairhope, and every coastal city in Baldwin County takes every measure imaginable to stop the flow of dirty water out of their cities, the dirty water will still reach Mobile Bay. It is flowing from places beyond Baldwin County’s control, from places where the local government may not have the money to replace aging systems or simply not be as proactive in protecting a global asset, the Gulf of Mexico.

City leaders in Fairhope should be applauded for taking responsibility, addressing the issue and then urging a regional approach to continue work toward creating a cleaner watershed. Clean water is not a luxury. It is a necessity. It is time that every citizen in the Mobile Bay watershed place its protection at the top of their priority list.