By Erika Scannell
Here On the Coast, we are blessed by some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and crystal clear water. Locals and visitors alike swarm to these waters 365 days of the year; no matter the temperature, no matter the day, someone is likely to be at the beach. But did you know there is an equally important body of water just north of our breathtaking beaches? It is the Choctawhatchee Bay, and a group of dedicated individuals and volunteers of the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) are constantly at work promoting the importance of this pristine estuary. As director Alison McDowell says, “The CBA is the one of the biggest little-known nonprofits in the area. And we are trying to change that.”
Water.epa.gov defines an estuary as “a partially enclosed body of water along the coast where fresh water from rivers and streams meets and mixes with salt water from the ocean” or, in our case, the Gulf of Mexico. Because of this distinctive mixture of freshwater draining from the land with the salty seawater, estuaries are home to unique plant and animal communities and some of the most productive ecosystems in the world according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Human communities rely on the brackish water of estuaries for food, recreation and jobs. In addition, numerous animal species need healthy estuaries in order to have places to feed, nest and breed. In essence, McDowell explains, estuaries are “nurseries of the sea and provide rare and important habitats for a diverse array of fishes, birds, shellfish and other life.”
Of the 32 largest cities in the world, 22 are located on estuaries. Not surprisingly, human activities have led to a decline in the health of estuaries, making them one of the most threatened ecosystems on earth. And while many estuaries have been lost or severely degraded by intense development, Choctawhatchee Bay remains one of the least disturbed estuaries in Florida. That difference, in part, is due to the CBA and its continued monitoring of the bay and its surrounding watershed.
The land and creeks that drain into the bay make up the watershed; therefore, the health of these surrounding areas directly relates to the conditions of the bay. Erosion, development, water pollution and aggressive nonnative plants threaten rare habitats upstream of the bay as well as the estuary itself. The CBA works hard to fight these threats to ensure the success of this very important part of our area. It does this through four distinct ways: monitoring, restoration, research and education.
With the help of hundreds of specially trained volunteers, the CBA conducts water quality monitoring at more than 100 stations per month. In addition, it conducts seagrass surveys throughout the bay and determines habitat utilization and oyster growth and recruitment at constructed oyster reef sites. All this data helps to evaluate the health of the Choctawhatchee River and Bay as well as the coastal dune lakes.
Through the implementation of restoration design projects throughout the watershed, the CBA helps to manage shoreline erosion and related sedimentation problems, builds necessary oyster reefs to improve habitat, reduces pollution into the watershed from non-point and point-specific sources, controls populations of invasive nonnative exotic plants, and enhances native plant communities. The specific sites of restoration include areas all around Destin, Santa Rosa Beach and Fort Walton.
To collect information and better understand the natural resources within the Choctawhatchee Basin, the CBA toils endlessly to coordinate and assist with scientific research projects. A few of these important projects include a coastal dune lakes hydrology study, trend analyses on local water resources, Gulf Sturgeon research throughout Northwest Florida, nutrient inflow to Choctawhatchee Bay, research on the harmful algal blooms in the western bay area and hydrologic mixing and nutrient pattern study.
But perhaps, to many here On the Coast, the most important arm of the CBA is its efforts to educate the community about environmentally-sound living, encourage public stewardship and involvement in our local area, and work with the schools to provide local, hands-on science curriculum to area children. Its education programs include Rain Gardening, Rain Barrels and Sediment and Erosion Control Certification in the form of public workshops. It involves and trains volunteers in the areas of restoration projects, water quality monitoring and clean-up opportunities. For our future generations, through education in the public schools, it adds to the district’s science curriculum by providing Grasses-in-Classes, Dunes-in-Schools, water conservation, water supply, water quality and invasion/exotic species programs.
The CBA is in partnership with 18 schools between Walton and Okaloosa Counties, servicing over 2000 students per month! Brittany Tate is the Education Coordinator for the CBA. She develops curriculum, teaches exercises, experiments, and trains and oversees the Americorp volunteers as they visit schools monthly, working with local classroom teachers and instructing our area students about the Choctawhatchee watershed. “The students learn how to monitor water quality and the importance of a healthy watershed. Some grow sea oats in their classroom throughout the year, while others learn how oyster beds function. All participants get hands-on learning fun with a field trip in the spring to plant the sea oats they have grown or get into the water and help rebuild oyster beds.” Ian, now a fourth grader at Butler Elementary School and a participant in last year’s grasses program, says, “That was one of the coolest things all year. I have an appreciation for the water plants that I didn’t have before. The teachers taught me how important the bay and the waters around it really are and it was fun.” Trip, a third grader at Butler currently in the program, sums it up perfectly. “I look forward to the guest teachers every month. We are counting down the days until our field trip when we get to do our part to clean up the bay. We all love to play in the water so it makes sense that we learn how to care for it. A healthy bay means a healthy beach. And who doesn’t love our beach?”
The CBA is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization in affiliation with the Northwest Florida State College Foundation. Their mission as an organization is to remain “committed to sustaining and providing optimum utilization of the Choctawhatchee watershed” providing “opportunities for citizens, educators and technical experts to promote the health of the” basin. To find out more about the CBA, to partner with and/or donate to, and to learn how to volunteer please visit www.basinalliance.com.
About the Author:
Erika Scannell has been married to Kip for nearly 10 years and has
enjoyed living in this area for the past 13. Mother to 4 incredible
children and active in her church and community as a volunteer MOPS
Coordinator, SW Football Secretary and speaker. Enjoys running,
reading and writing and plans to publish her first book this year.
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