All About the Black Warrior River Basin

The Black Warrior River Basin is the largest watershed wholly within Alabama’s state boundaries. The river’s principal forks, the Sipsey, Mulberry, and Locust, begin in North Alabama and converge to form the Black Warrior to the west of Birmingham at the Jefferson County, Walker County line. 

A beautiful view of Blackwater Creek near Walston Bridge in Jasper, AL. Photo Credit: Cathy East

NOTABLE TRIBUTARIES

Before the Black Warrior earns its name, it starts as three of Alabama’s most significant forks. The largest of these, the Sipsey Fork, is the western most fork, and flows into the Mulberry Fork, the center prong. These merged streams flow together until they meet the Locust Fork, the right prong, at the Jefferson and Walker County line. It is here that they become the Black Warrior River. The natural union of these powerful forks has now been submerged under the waters of Bankhead Lake. All of these forks flow through sandstone canyons of the Cumberland Plateau and provide some of Alabama’s best whitewater runs and most scenic vistas. 

The Black Warrior is unique in that it does not emanate from one source, but from three primary prongs which come together to give birth to a mighty river. 

LOCUST FORK

Locust Fork near Snead, AL. Photo Credit: Rachel McGuire.

Few people are aware that the majority of urbanized Birmingham drains into tributaries of the Locust Fork River, causing significant impairment. 

The Locust Fork is considered one of the best whitewater runs available in Alabama. In Blount County, the river drops more than 500 feet creating up to Class IV rapids.  One of the Locust Fork’s most significant sub-watersheds is Turkey Creek in northwest Jefferson County. This small creek serves as the only habitat for the endangered Vermillion darter. 

BRUSHY CREEK

Brushy Creek is considered the sister river of the Sipsey Fork in the Bankhead National Forest. Brushy is known for is clear waters and scenic views. Brushy Creek flows into the Lewis Smith reservoir, a 35 mile long, 21,200 acre impoundment located in the headwaters of the Black Warrior River.

Brushy Creek in the Bankhead National Forest. Photo Credit: Sydney Smith.

CLEAR CREEK

Clear Creek near Nauvoo, AL. Photo Credit: Rachel McGuire.

The Chickasaws once called Clear Creek the “River of the Long Leaf Pines,” but the original name was Pacana (pronounced “Paw-can-naw”) which, translated by the French, meant “Flat Rock River.” Jesse Livingston, on encountering Clear Creek Falls in 1812, supposedly named it Grand River. It was named Clear Creek “from the many bold mountain springs which flow into it.” 

DAMS ON THE BLACK WARRIOR

The Black Warrior was the first river in Alabama to be significantly modified to improve navigation. The impetus for improving the Black Warrior River to allow unhindered barge and steamer navigation was envisioned in the late 1800s. Before the age of the railroad, the region floated coal downstream to markets in Mobile via wooden barges. It was a dangerous and sometimes life-threatening endeavor.

Loading Coal Barges in Tuscaloosa County for Export at Mobile and New Orleans in 1915. Photo Source: Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH).

The appearance of the main stem is vastly different today due to the rivers manipulation for navigation. Before the construction of locks and dams, the Black Warrior tumbled over some of the largest and most beautiful shoals in Alabama. Squaw shoals, now flooded by John Hollis Bankhead Lake was perhaps the world’s largest stand of shoal lilies and also harbored many species of fish and thirty species of mussels.

The number of dams along the Black Warrior main stem has changed several times since the later 1800’s. Currently, there are four major dams on the Black Warrior main stem:

John Hollis Bankhead Lock and Dam which forms Bankhead Lake

Holt Lock and Dam which forms Holt Lake

William Bacon Oliver Lock and Dam which forms Lake Oliver

Armistead I. Selden or Warrior Lock and Dam which forms Warrior Lake

The John Hollis Bankhead Lock and Dam which forms Bankhead Lake is the northernmost structure on the mainstem of the Black Warrior and is located in Tuscaloosa County. The original lock was built in 1915 and replaced by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1963. Alabama Power Company constructed and maintains a hydroelectric powerhouse below the lock which they built in 1963. Bankhead is one of two Corps owned dams fitted with an Alabama Power Company hydropower generating turbine. 

HOLT LOCK AND DAM  was completed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1969, and like the Bankhead dam, is fitted with Alabama Power Company hydropower turbines. The new dam inundated four older locks, some of which were removed to prevent navigation hazards during low water. Holt Lake extends upstream 19 miles to the John Hollis Bankhead Lock and Dam. The lake covers 3,200 acres and is a popular recreation attraction.

WILLIAM BACON OLIVER LOCK AND DAM  was the first modern improved dam to be built and covered the first three locks built on the Black Warrior. Completed in 1940 the dam is located in the city of Tuscaloosa. The original lock was built in 1895. 

The ARMISTEAD I. SELDEN or WARRIOR LOCK AND DAM is the last on the Warrior River and sits 6 miles southeast of Eutaw. Warrior Lake extends 77 miles to the William Bacon Oliver Lock and Dam in Tuscaloosa and has a surface area of 7,800 acres. Frequently used for water sports and recreational opportunities.

Lake Nicol was completed in 1956 and serves as a backup for Lake Tuscaloosa. Lake Nichol Spillway in Tuscaloosa, AL. Photo Credit: ACES Flickr.

WILDLIFE

There are 11 federally listed endangered species of aquatic animals in the Black Warrior River Basin, and many more that are federally listed as threatened.

Endangered fish include the Cahaba shiner, rush darter, vermilion darter, and watercress darter. There is one endangered snail, the plicate rocksnail and one endangered amphibian, the Black Warrior waterdog, as well as five endangered mussels: dark pigtoe, ovate clubshell, southern clubshell, southern combshell, and triangular kidneyshell. There is also a threatened reptile, the flattened musk turtle.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) host additional information about Alabama’s endangered and threatened species.

The Black Warrior waterdog is a large, aquatic, nocturnal salamander that permanently retains larval characteristics such as frilly, external gills for its entire life. They are listed as endangered and only found in streams within the Black Warrior River Basin. The waterdog need specific habitat substrate, ideally bedrock with little sand that contains rock crevices for shelter and egg laying, to flourish. Therefore, it’s no surprise that their main threat is increased sedimentation.

The Black Warrior Waterdog and associated conservation work by the Auburn University Museum of Natural History, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, The Nature Conservancy, USDA Forest Service, and others was featured in Garden and Gun Magazine.

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