The River Stage at Barry Steam Plant is a Barometer for Upper Mobile Bay and Delta


Barry Steam Plant serves as an accurate barometer of upper Mobile Bay and delta conditions, reflecting rainfall upstate and tidal flow from Alabama and Tombigbee rivers. Its water level fluctuates due to these influences.

Students living in the new residence halls will utilize water heated with energy extracted from vapor that previously vented directly into the atmosphere through campus boiler stacks, now looped around three coiled pipelines and used to provide heat.

Water Levels

Water levels on rivers or streams are measured by measuring their height above a “gauge datum,” usually located just below the lowest natural bank at any particular location. The distance above this datum, known as its “stage,” is of great interest to fishers, hunters, farmers, boaters, and residents of an area alike. To assist this monitoring effort, the National Weather Service maintains a network of river and stream gauges throughout Alaska and the contiguous US that displays current river levels or flood stages at over 6,500 locations nationwide – hover your mouse over any dot and generate hydrographs of recent measurements taken at each location – while some sites also display forecasted river levels several days out!

The National Weather Service assigns a flood stage to every level of river or stream water above its established gauge datum. The flood stage is determined based on both its frequency and specific impacts; for instance, flooding with a 2-year recurrence interval may have more significant ramifications than its 5-year equivalent.

The Barry Steam Plant river level varies with tides. Tidal influences often outweigh freshwater from the Gulf of Mexico, and when river readings exceed 5′, the effect will diminish rapidly while freshwater will dominate water movement. Tidal effects typically cease once this reading has been reached, and freshwater will take control.

Flood Stages

At Mobile Baykeeper, a significant concern of ours is the potential breach of an earthen dam that stores Plant Barry’s coal ash. If this dam fails, toxic waste could contaminate Tombigbee River, Mobile Bay, and even its delta region.

With recent heavy rainfalls, we witnessed rivers rapidly rise at Coffeeville, Leroy, and Coffeeville Dam along the Tombigbee and Barry Steam Plant – coming within inches of reaching central flood stage but stopping short. Last night, we went out again with Program Director Cade Kistler to see firsthand the power of water as its path raged through areas once barren only weeks prior. Water was only 5-10 feet from reaching overtop the 25-foot tall dam that holds back the coal ash but managed to stop just short.

As of this morning, the Tombigbee River at Demopolis is currently in a moderate flood stage but should transition soon into minor flooding conditions. Meanwhile, the Alabama River at Claiborne Dam remains at a central flood stage but should see a gradual reduction into moderate by Friday, and Bayou Sara at Saraland remains in moderate flooding throughout this weekend.

Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River in Morgan City has reached heights that exceed seven feet above flood stage, leading to buildings at Ann Street’s base and near Rio Oil Company dock to become inundated. NWS warns that should water levels continue to increase, further flooding may occur within wooded wetlands and pastures.

Tidal Influence

River levels can be affected by tides, which is why the Barry Steam Plant gauge (technically, it’s a river level gauge and not a dam gauge) should be closely watched. Once Mobile River exceeds 8′ at Barry Steam plant, tide movement becomes more influential than outflow from Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, often leading to dirtier and fresher waters moving downriver.

The bankfull stage of a gauge is defined as the point at a specific location above which an increase in water surface levels causes overflow of natural stream banks within its reach without necessarily flooding any downstream land area. Bankfull stages typically represent 2-year recurrence interval floods.

Acensium’s Jason Adkins and Plant Barry team have collaborated closely this winter, working closely together with all stakeholders involved with retrofit projects, including 3-D scanning, precision environment modeling, and risk analysis. Plant Barry leadership’s innovative spirit extends far beyond physical maintenance and operations and includes their approach to planning and risk management – the core stakeholder group they established within the fossil fuels department for managing combustible dust is an outstanding example of this trend.

Water Temperature

Tomorrow, it is expected to see Barry Steam Plant reach its zenith and then begin its downward slope, but not quickly enough to avoid pumping more dirty, cold water into Alabama and Tombigbee rivers and Mobile Bay.

The university designed its new residence halls according to stringent sustainability standards, utilizing recycled content materials and low-emitting adhesives, sealants, paints, and coatings. Furthermore, each building uses an energy-efficient closed-loop heating and cooling system utilizing energy from water vapor released back into the atmosphere as a source.

Assuming the water level drops quickly enough, we should see enough drop-off to reach a benchmark height that allows saltwater and inshore speckled trout fisheries to move up Mobile Bay toward the Causeway without too much more high water entering Mobile Bay.