Leslie Gahagan's office at the rear of the Graham Creek Nature Preserve Interpretive Center is slightly terrifying and may make you question what she does for a living.Halloween masks circle the …
Leslie Gahagan's office at the rear of the Graham Creek Nature Preserve Interpretive Center is slightly terrifying and may make you question what she does for a living.
Halloween masks circle the room, two living tarantula spiders sit on one stand and the shed of another (who has crossed the rainbow bridge) sits in another aquarium.
The newest addition to her office is not scary, though. On Aug. 5, Gahagan was awarded Water Conservationist of the Year by the Alabama Wildlife Federation.
Gahagan wears many hats in her role as the environmental manager for the city of Foley, where she manages the Environmental and Nature Parks Departments. She monitors environmental issues, code compliance, ordinance development, manages Graham Creek Nature Preserve and is the brainchild behind the popular Graham Creek haunted forest, hence the room full of masks.
She is also active with several organizations including the Wolf Bay Watershed Watch where she serves as president.
Growing up in the Elberta area, Gahagan grew to love the waterways she spent her youth exploring. She decided she wanted to study marine biology in college and focused on the marine environment.
Gahagan has spent her 20-year career in conservation, first working in the Alabama Department of Environmental Management as a stormwater inspector. She joined the city of Foley in 2006.
"I came in and started writing regulations and developing an inspection program for all the development that was going on at the time," Gahagan said. "Then the downturn occurred, and I was able to hone in on future things that needed to be done to get us (the city of Foley) as a leader in the state for regulation and programs environmentally."
It was during that time that Gahagan found out about the city owned property that would become Graham Creek Nature Preserve. It had been purchased as an aquafer for the city. She worked with the city council and mayor to develop it into a nature preserve, getting the first grant for a canoe launch in 2007 and opening to the public in 2008.
While Gahagan does not know the details of her nomination for the Water Conservationist of the Year award, it is clear that the many projects she has worked or is working on have qualified her for the award.
According to the Alabama Wildlife Federation website, the award is presented for "outstanding contribution to water resource conservation, whether surface water, ground water or wetlands. Efforts focusing on protection and improvement of water quality are especially important."
The list of projects Gahagan has developed, received grants for, oversaw and managed is long and all would fall into the qualifications for the Water Conservationist of the Year award.
"The newest thing that we have been working on is the Graham Creek Preserve where we are trying to preserve the headwaters of this watershed, the smaller watershed, as a show piece for future generations. So much of the watersheds in this area are being developed and you are losing some of those connections and losing water quality. This provides one of those places where you can reconnect with that," Gahagan said.
Another project that she has spent the last three years overseeing is a water quality project on the Bon Secour River. Gahagan explained that large stormwater flows are side cast into a 94-acre parcel of land. The stormwater travels through a series of natural wetland systems which filter out sediment, reduce litter, reduce nutrients from agricultural runoff and urban runoff.
"By the time the water releases back into the river it is pristine," Gahagan said. "We never mess with the natural base flow of the natural river so that the system doesn't change. All that extra water now has a flood plain and all these things to treat it."
The passion Gahagan has for her work is evident by her list of accolades and the sparkle in her eye as she speaks about her past, current and future projects. But the educational programs and making an impact on the young could be the top accolade.
"For me personally that makes me prouder than anything. To see that if you go into a school and tell kids about a program, they come here, they intern, go off and get their degrees and come back, it is huge," Gahagan said.
Gahagan has watched as children at the Stan Mahoney Youth Fishing Tournament grow into youth volunteers at Graham Creek Nature Preserve, get the Stan Mahoney Scholarship from the Wolf Bay Watershed Watch, come back to intern and then go to college and come back for a job.
"You get some of that total buy in. That makes me prouder than anything," Gahagan said.