At 5:30 every morning for more than two weeks, senior Collin Williams and environmental science alumnus Chris Cochrane woke up, disassembled their camp, and kayaked into the Black Warrior River. Their goal? Raise awareness of Alabama’s aquatic ecosystems by getting from Tuscaloosa to Mobile entirely on the strength of the current and their ability to paddle 341 miles.
“I’m really passionate about aquatic ecosystems,” Williams said, “and this trip was an attention-grabber. I thought it would be a great way to promote awareness and get people talking about water quality and the environment.”
On the duo’s Go Fund Me website, which has now raised more than $1,000 for water conservation efforts, there is a list of facts about Alabama’s ecosystem. Some are fun, stating that Alabama has the most freshwater aquatic species in the country, but others warn of the loss of those species. For instance, Alabama also ranks number two in the nation for most species lost to extinction.
“In the end, our goal was to touch one person,” Williams said. “Even if our only accomplishment was to help one more person see the importance of water quality and aquatic ecosystems, that would have been enough. The donations were an added bonus.”
Williams champions awareness because he believes that prevention is the key to a healthy environment.
“We have millions of gallons of water in our backyard, and I think it’s important to protect those resources before something goes wrong,” Williams said. “On the news we hear about the droughts out West and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and it seems that we often wait to start talking about a problem until it’s a major issue. But it’s a lot easier to maintain clean water than to fix polluted water.”
On May 27, after storms, heat, a lot of camping, and even detangling a Pelican from a fishing lure, Williams and Cochrane finally landed in Mobile Bay.
“I’m a marine science and biology double major with a minor in geology—and I have learned a lot in my classes,” Williams said. “But some things are hard to truly understand until you get outside and really check it out. Now I know firsthand how animals interact and how water flows through systems. The lightbulb has switched on.”
Williams graduates from the University in fall 2016, after which he will move to Alaska to work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a national fisheries observer in Dutch Harbor. In that position he will record the catch and species types of the fish that are caught in commercial vessels.
“Ultimately, my professional goal is to work as a state fisheries biologist or as the lead scientist of a marine protected area,” Williams said. ”Both positions would allow me to have influence on the sustainable management of ecosystems and the establishment of regulations that protect them.”
Without the help of UA’s Cartographic Research Lab, Williams’ trip would not have been possible. Craig Remington, the director of the lab, helped Williams design and print custom topographic maps of the river from Tuscaloosa to Mobile.