Starting in February, you may run into Benny White only if you’re thirsty.
That’s because the Big Creek Lake pumping station supervisor and 38-year veteran of the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS) may be retiring from the utility, but he’ll still be around to tend bar at SMG properties, including the Saenger Theatre downtown. He started tending bar at Mardi Gras balls about eight years ago and the moonlighting has since continued.
“I wanted to have something to do when I left,” he said. “I love to talk to people.”
White called his decision to retire one of the toughest decisions he’s ever had to make, so aside from bartending and a cruise ship excursion he doesn’t know what’s on the horizon.
“This has been my life for 38 years and it’s hard to walk away from,” he said. “I’m going to be missing this place, I can tell you that.”
Working at Big Creek Lake is truly the only job White has ever known. He started there at age 17 as a summer worker, but later joined MAWSS full time. He has been the supervisor there for 27 years.
“It’s a pleasure working with bosses that will back you up and help you with all the challenges that happen out there,” he said. “It’s being out there in nature. I mean, it’s beautiful property, a beautiful lake.”
The walls of the tiny lakeside office White shares with other MAWSS employees are filled with knickknacks accumulated from decades of public service. Those trinkets include an oar with a U.S. Marine insignia engraved upon it. White said he was able to allow members of the 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company reserve group train on the lake.
“Anything those guys needed, I tried to help them,” he said.
If White ever misses the work, or if MAWSS needs to tap any of his expertise in retirement, he’s only a phone call away, according to Director Charles Hyland.
“He has been very generous in telling us that we can contact him and we certainly appreciate that very much,” Hyland said.
White will be replaced by Steven Davis, who has 28 years of experience and is currently a raw-water supervisor at the facility. Despite only a 10-year experience gap, Davis will tell you some of White’s knowledge will be missed.
“If I can do as good a job as he did, or keep it as good as he left it, I’ll be perfectly content,” Davis said.
Big Creek Lake, also known as the Converse Reservoir, was initially named for the creek that was dammed to create it, White said. In the 1990s, the lake was renamed the Converse Reservoir after an engineering firm that helped create it.
Until the 1950s, Three Mile Creek was one of the area’s sources of drinking water, but that would change with an idea for a man-made lake.
“Over the years it became more and more challenging, both for the quantity needed for a growing city and for the quality,” Hyland said. “And so in the early 1950s they determined — and it was some real foresight people had — that [the need could be met] by creating Big Creek Lake. So they built that lake to provide water not just for the 1950s, but far into the future, and we are the beneficiary of that today.”
The original pumps that push the raw, untreated water from the lake to the treatment facility are still in good working order, White said.
“Our Number One job is to make sure that we’re pumping water to the treatment plants,” he said. “We maintain and keep the pumps running 24/7.”
With 17 billion gallons of water at capacity, Big Creek Lake can sustain itself as a source of drinking water for the area for “hundreds of years,” White said. On average the Big Creek Lake pumping station pumps about 67 million gallons of water per day. When the area paper mills were up and running at full capacity, the facility was pumping around 110 million gallons per day, White said.
“Look at what we used to do when we supplied the paper mills and look at what we’re doing now,” he said. “To catch back up to that, the city’s got a lot of growing to do.”
That abundant supply can also be an issue in an environment that sees a lot of rainfall. Operators of the reservoir routinely have to open the spillways if more than one inch of rain falls, White said.
A portion of the lake is open to the public for fishing. For $5, those interested in fishing can take a boat out all day, White said. To fish from the banks it costs $3. The boat launch is at the end of Howells Ferry Road.
The second priority for White and those who manage Big Creek Lake is to protect the drinking water source. MAWSS has spent years buying property around the lake to prevent contamination from sediment, runoff and other pollutants.
“As far as the water system itself, one goal around the lake is to try to protect the integrity of the water and doing that by controlling what goes into the lake,” Hyland said. “The best way we can do that is to continue to do what we have been doing, which is try to acquire as much land as we can to act as a buffer.”
It’s important to contrast what MAWSS is doing compared to some other cities and utilities that allow development almost to the banks of existing water sources, Hyland said. The board has been instrumental in helping the system acquire as much land as possible. MAWSS currently owns some 8,000 to 9,000 acres of land around the lake and hopes to add more.
“We understand the plan that we have surrounding the lake and the property that we want to have surrounding the lake,” board member Maynard Odom said. “Every time a piece of property become available, we’re aggressive with trying to secure that property. We don’t lay back, we don’t hesitate. We look at what it is and we do an evaluation of it and then we make an offer.”
In many cases, MAWSS will make an offer on property before it even goes on the market, Odom said. There has never been a debate among members over land acquisition, he said, at least during his time on the board.
If development gets too close, it can lead to a number of issues for the water source, Big Creek Lake Forester Art Dyas said.
“Fertilizers, pesticides and the whole nine yards,” Dyas said. “If you get an algae bloom in a lake of that magnitude with the development around it, you’re in pretty deep trouble.”
MAWSS is also proactive in educating residents about littering or releasing pollutants into feeder streams along the watershed, Hyland said.
“We need to keep educating the people that live in the watershed area about the importance of not dumping trash out there, making sure that they don’t dump any hazardous materials in their yards that could potentially run out into the lake,” Hyland said. “Anything, you know, from oil — changing oil in their cars — to pesticides, insecticides, whatever the case might be. So, we need help from people that live in that community to help us protect the integrity of the lake, especially when it comes to trash and dumping things out in that area.”
In addition to acquiring land as a way to control what goes into the drinking water supply, MAWSS and Mobile Baykeeper have even taken legal action to keep development away. Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway joined MAWSS as a plaintiff on lawsuits against the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) in the early 2000s to amend plans for construction of a new U.S. Route 98 over runoff concerns. Callaway said road construction was set to cross Big Creek Lake feeder streams 13 times. The action led Baykeeper and MAWSS to enter into two lawsuits, Callaway said.
“I can’t speak more highly of how hard they’ve worked,” Callaway said of MAWSS. “MAWSS and Baykeeper were in lockstep together on the whole thing.”
In addition to concerns over runoff and sediment that could cause damage to the lake, Hyland said ALDOT was clearing out brush and wetlands — which help to filter out pollutants before they reach the lake — from the area too quickly.
“A lot of timberlands and wetlands were impacted,” he said.
One lawsuit, Hyland said, resulted in ALDOT’s use of best practices in construction of all future road projects.
“They’ve adhered to the standards very well,” Hyland said of ALDOT.
MAWSS contracts with Dyas to help manage the more than 9,000 acres of land around Big Creek Lake. Since he started in 1989, Dyas and MAWSS have made an effort to preserve the property and promote indigenous species.
One of those is longleaf pine. Dyas and MAWSS have removed some of the slash pine on the property and replanted longleaf, which used to dominate forests in the South, Dyas said.
“Many years ago there were 93 million acres of longleaf in the southeastern United States,” he said. “Today there’s less than 5 [million acres]. Longleaf was replaced in the ‘cut out and get out’ era of forestry because they really didn’t know how to regenerate it. They didn’t know how to plant it and they had dismal failures back in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.”
The loss of the longleaf ecosystem endangered other native flora and fauna, Dyas said, but MAWSS has worked to bring some of that back.
“The longleaf ecosystem with the diversity of both flora and fauna rivals those habitats that are incorporated in the rainforest of South America,” Dyas said. “It’s pretty impressive when you think about it. Today, or in the past, the board has done a magnanimous job of being committed to not only land acquisition, but to the furtherance of establishing and maintaining the longleaf ecosystem.”
One of those species affected by the loss of longleat habitat is the gopher tortoise. In 1994, MAWSS helped create a private gopher tortoise reserve, which has since been emulated elsewhere, Dyas said.
“Gopher tortoises are really important because the burrows are the homes for a wide diversity of both insect and vertebrate animals,” Dyas said. “This guy’s pretty slick. He invites them all to come on down. I’m going to dig you a home and you come on down and hang out in the motel.”
In addition to the gopher tortoise and the black pine snake, the area is home to deer and even the occasional black bear as well as other wildlife, White said.
“There have been photos of several [black bears] on the banks, feeding and drinking water,” he said. “We do have turkeys, of course, and bald eagles. We have multiple nests of bald eagles above the water.”
Part of Dyas’ forest management plan calls for prescribed fires, which helps get rid of underbrush that would choke out some of the more important habitat.
“… Just about every terrestrial and plant species on the threatened and endangered species list is fire dependent,” he said.
The area is managed with prescribed fires, but nearby development is an impediment to that, too, Dyas said.
“One of the reasons is because of residential development in close proximity to the acreage we’re trying to manage and the more Mobile County grows, the harder it’s going to be,” he said. “Smoke travels a long way and it travels just like water. It travels downhill, so anywhere you’ve got a creek that crosses a major highway, like Highway 98, any of those creeks, and you’re burning up the hill at night time, the smoke goes down in the creeks and crosses the bottoms and then you’ve got another problem.”
MAWSS also makes money from cutting down and selling timber on its property. Profits from the sale go back into the system and are mainly used to acquire more land.