All About The Tombigbee Basin

The Tombigbee begins in Mississippi, crosses the Alabama state line at Aliceville Lake, joins the Black Warrior River at Demopolis, and eventually joins the Alabama River to form the Mobile River. The Tombigbee flows throughout 15 counties in Mississippi and 15 counties in Alabama, with slightly more than 50% of the river in Alabama.

The main stem of the Tombigbee River is approximately 200 miles long.

Tombigbee Watershed (yellow shading) with the Alabama portion of the river and its tributaries (in blue). Map Credit: Sydney Zinner

The name “Tombigbee” comes from Choctaw “itumbi ikbi“, which means “box maker” or “coffin maker”. There are many stories and legends about how this name came to be. One story is the river was named after a box maker who lived on some of the Tombigbee’s headwaters. Another story is based on the need for box making in the area to ship pelts during the French-dominated fur trade in the 1700’s.

TENNESSEE-TOMBIGBEE WATERWAY (TENN-TOM)

The Tombigbee is heavily engineered with 12 dams, 10 of which are part of The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (Tenn-Tom). The Tenn-Tom is a 234-mile, man-made waterway completed in the 1980’s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from the Tennessee River to the junction of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior River close to Demopolis, Alabama. The Ten-Tom clocked a construction cost of nearly $2 billion. The two major commodities shipped along the Ten-Tom are coal and timber products. A portion called the “Divide Cut” is a 29-mile canal that makes the direct connection to the Tennessee River – connecting Pickwick Lake to Bay Springs Lake. View a towboat floating the Tombigbee near Ezell’s Fish Camp courtesy of Rural SW Alabama.

ALABAMA GREAT SOUTHERN RAILROAD

Map of the route of the Alabama Great Southern Railroad. Photo Credit: Alabama Department of Archives & History

Transportation played a key role in historical, agricultural product success in the Tombigbee River Basin. The Alabama Great Southern Railroad, a subsidiary owned by the Norfolk Southern Corporation, ran through the town of Eutaw. Eutaw is the county seat of Alabama’s least populous county: Greene County.

Steamboat transportation was critical to the early development of Alabama until the early 1900’s. From 1820 to the late 1800’s, the primary function of steamboats was to transport cotton to the Gulf Coast ports. There were nearly 300 landings for loading cotton bales along the Tombigbee River. When steamboats traveled upriver, they often carried sugar, coffee, food, clothing household good, and farm supplies for upriver towns. Most steamboats had several decks – the main deck which carried the cotton bales and second-class or “deck” passengers as well as enclosed decks that carried first-class passengers and ship’s officers.

Interior of a steamboat saloon on the Tombigbee River. Photo Credit: Alabama Department of Archives & History

PLACES OF INTEREST

THE CANEBRAKE REGION AND THE FORK

A portion of the Tombigbee Basin is in the “Canebrake Region” of Alabama. The region’s namesake comes from the name for dense stands of rivercane, the Southeast’s only native bamboo called canebrakes, that once dominated the landscape. These canebrakes covered large swaths of land and served as a wildlife corridor and habitat for a wide range of wildlife including black bear, small mammals, roosting birds, etc. Canebrakes were used by Native Americans and early white settlers as an indicator of fertile soil. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of canebrakes were cleared for agricultural land prior to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

Another area of the Lower Tombigbee Basin is historically known as “The Fork”. The Fork is found in the lower portion of Greene County, a small area between the Tombigbee and Black Warrior River that contains an especially productive section of alluvial land. The Fork is riddled with sandy ridges with underlying pebble.

CHOCTAW NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

The Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1964 as a result of land acquisition by the US Army Corps of Engineers during the Coffeeville Lock and Dam project. The refuge covers 4,218 acres which includes 1,802 acres of lakes, sloughs, and creeks. The refuge’s primary purpose is to provide wood duck brood habitat and serve as a wintering ground for waterfowl. Frequently seen refuge wildlife include wood ducks, bald eagles, American alligators, wood stork, and beavers.

VINE AND OLIVE COLONY

The Vine and Olive Colony was an early French settlement near present-day Demopolis. The settlement’s namesake comes from their intentions to establish grape and olive orchards in western Alabama. Although the colony’s agriculture plan was an utter failure, their story continues to be told as an example of an inspirational “can-do” attitude and spirit of American pioneers.

A Depiction of the Vine and Olive Colony French Settlement of Aigleville. Photo Credit: Alabama Department of Archives and History

THE WHITE CLIFFS OF EPES

The White Cliffs of Epes along the Tombigbee River. Photo Credit: Rachel McGuire

Beautiful white cliffs and bluffs can be found along the Tombigbee River – the most impressive section is found near the town of Epes. These cliffs are part of Selma Chalk formations deposited around the same time as the world-famous White Cliffs of Dover on the English Coast. The chalk is composed of the remains of ancient marine algae called coccolithophores. They contain limestone (or calcite) plated scales that are shaped like hubcaps. In fact, coccolithophores are considered the largest producer of calcite in today’s oceans. Read more about the White Cliffs of Epes.

WILDLIFE

The inflated heelsplitter (Potamilus inflatus) is a threatened freshwater mussel. This species also occurs in Louisiana and Mississippi.

An inflated heelsplitter (Potamilus inflatus). Photo Credit: USFWS

The Tombigbee contains Strategic Habitat Units (SHUs) for several freshwater mussel species including the Orangenacre mucket, Ovate clubshell, Southern clubshell, and the Alabama moccasinshell.

Wood Ducks are small ducks, measuring only 15-18 inches in length. Males are brightly-colored, while the females are a relatively drab brown with a white eye patch. Wood Ducks are found in a variety of habitats, but need shallow water such as a river, creek, lake, swamp, beaver pond, or even ditches. They are “dabbler” feeders with the adult diet consisting mainly of acorns. Wood Ducks are cavity nesters that may use cavities as high as 50 feet above the ground. Ducklings jump from the nest when only 1-2 days old. Check out this amazing video of young Wood Ducks taking their first leap.

WATER QUALITY

303(d) listed streams in the Tombigbee River Basin within Alabama. Map Credit: Sydney Zinner

Threats & Impairments 

On the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s 2020 303(d) List of Impaired Waters, the Tombigbee River has 27 waterbodies listed, totaling 389 miles of streams and river reaches and 1,311 acres of reservoirs.  Eight of these waterbodies were new 2020 listings, and five of the waterbodies have been listed for 10 or more years.  Nine of the waterbodies are listed for metal impairment, more specifically, mercury from atmospheric deposition. Two waterbodies were listed for nutrient impairment, one for organic enrichment, and 19 for pathogen impairment (E.coli). Sources of impairment include atmospheric deposition, contaminated sediments, agriculture, pasture grazing, animal feeding operations, municipal, and collection system failure. 
 

AWW Data 

Although the Tombigbee River Basin is one of the least monitored areas of the state for Alabama Water Watch volunteers, it is home to one of the most robust 4-H Alabama Water Watch Program’s: Hamilton High School. Hamilton HS is located in Marion County in the upper Tombigbee Basin near the Buttahatchee River. Read more about the fabulous 4-H AWW monitors at Hamilton High School.

Hamilton High School students practicing AWW Water Chemistry monitoring during a recent 4-H AWW Workshop. Photo Credit: Mona Dominguez

19 AWW sites have been monitored historically in the Tombigbee River Basin, yielding 144 total water chemistry records, 36 total bacteriological monitoring records, and 6 stream biomonitoring records since the first site on the Tombigbee was sampled in 1994. However, there is only one currently active site (a site that has been monitored by volunteers within 12 months).  The majority of the monitoring sites are located around Hamilton, Livingston, and Jackson. 

Do you have photos or videos on the Tombigbee River or any of their tributaries you would like to share with AWW? If so, upload your photo/video through this submission form.