Cindy Lowry is the executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance. She joined the staff in 2005 as Watershed Leadership Coordinator and was promoted to Executive Director in 2007. A native of Alabama, Cindy was born and raised in Oneonta. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Science from Auburn University and her Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she focused on citizen participation in public policy. Cindy has more than 15 years of experience in the conservation nonprofit sector. Cindy has been recognized by the Metro Birmingham branch of the NAACP (2012), named one of the Women Who Shape the State by al.com (2016) and awarded an Auburn University Alumni Spirit of Sustainability Award (2017). Cindy currently serves as President of the Board of Directors for Alabama Arise and is a long-time member of the Board of Directors for the Friends of the Locust Fork River.
This interview was conducted by Carly Schmidt on November 11, 2018. Learn more about Cindy’s work at the Alabama Rivers Alliance.
Did you grow up around water? Where? What are your fondest early memories of rivers, lakes, or streams?
I grew up in a small town in Alabama in the Locust Fork River Watershed. My family owned property that was surrounded by trees on either side of the river. We fished and swam the small river. Playing outdoors was the main activity of my childhood. That’s really where my passion began.
Did any of these early experiences inform your decision to become a conservationist?
These experiences made me feel comfortable in the outdoors and appreciate its value. The outdoors provides spirit and relaxation if you’re given the opportunity to become comfortable in nature at a young age. But my passion for water protection developed later. I grew up in a small town in Alabama where no one knew anything about being a conservationist. As I grew up and attended college, I studied wildlife science and learned about wildlife needs. My career went in an environmental direction because of the seeds that were planted at an early age. The skills I learned in childhood and volunteering for water organizations merged organically. It made sense to become a river advocate.
Why is protecting rivers and water important to you now?
I know too much about what is happening to our waters, and about how integral watersheds are to our economy, public health, and recreation. The health of our waters affects our ability to live and exist in a healthy way on this earth. Knowing all of this, it makes sense to be a river advocate.
What is Alabama Rivers Aliance doing now to support healthy rivers?
I am a long-term thinker. I always ask, “What are we doing now?” and “Are we leaving the earth better than we found it?” We have been working for several years on an Alabama Water Plan that will help ensure that our water supplies are affordable. [Affordability] is not something Alabamans think about because there is a lot of water in the state, but our water is easily mismanaged and polluted. We are working with the state, which is a slow-going process, but we continue to push forward.
What does being a part of River Network mean to you?
Alabama Rivers Alliance has been a part of River Network for as long as the organization has been around. For 21 years, River Network has played an essential role in guiding our organization’s growth in strategic planning, fundraising, building leaders, and professional development skills. River Network also brings Southeastern groups together. Alabama is one of the least-funded states in the nonprofit sector, so there are not a lot of resources to get external help or resources. I don’t know what we would do without River Network.
What water-related accomplishment are you most proud of?
Alabama Rivers Alliance was formed to support and strengthen all local groups to build and lead a movement to protect rivers and streams and to work on policy-level water protection. I became Executive Director half-way through the life of the organization. We have continued to grow the movement, hold on to our mission, and create a force for water protection at the state level. I am proud of our strong presence across the state with so many groups and waterkeepers working together as a movement.
This past year, we have been working on re-licensing several dams of the Coosa River. This has been 15 years of stakeholders working together in this process. We partnered with American Rivers, local homeowner groups, and the Southern Environmental Law Center to win the challenge this summer. It was a huge unanimous victory in the court of appeals. The Coosa River is widely known as the culprit of one of the largest recent mass-extinctions. When the dams were built, we lost over 30 species of mussels and snails. Alabama has so much biodiversity; there are endangered species still threatened by dams. We have a lot of work to do in drafting the new license, but it was a huge win and a testament to the grassroots movement and public participation.
This work is so tough, and we don’t get a lot of wins. It pays off to be persistent and patient with these goals so that maybe our children and grandchildren will benefit from our hard work.
What positive changes would you like to see for water in your community over the next 10 years?
I would love to see the state of Alabama place more value in water; specifically, investing in source-water protection, enforcing clean water laws and regulations so drinking water is kept clean and healthy, and valuing this resource for what it is. Alabama ranks 50th in environmental protection, so I would like to see the state invest in clean water and to realize the economic benefits this investment would provide.