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Learn About Your Watershed

Choctawhatchee River and Bay Watershed

Image of The sun sets on a peaceful Choctawhatchee Bay.
The sun sets on a peaceful Choctawhatchee Bay. © SpecEd

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: 3,260 square miles

Major Cities and Towns: Graceville, Bonifay, Callaway, Chipley, Cedar Grove, Cinco Bayou, Caryville, De Funiak Springs, Destin, Ebro, Esto, Freeport, Ponce De Leon, Freeport, Laguna Beach, Lynn Haven, Lake Lorraine, Mexico Beach, Miramar Beach, Niceville, Ocean City, Nona, Panama City, Parker, Port St. Joe, Shalimar, Vernon, Valparaiso, Wausau, Westville, and Wright

Counties: Most of the watershed lies within Holmes, Washington, Walton, and Bay Counties, and smaller areas lie within Jackson, Calhoun, Gulf, and Okaloosa Counties

Major Water Features: Sand Hill Lakes, Lake Powell, and Deer Point Lake Reservoir
Springs: Burn-Out, Cypress, Beckton, Morrison, and Ponce de Leon Springs

Rivers: Choctawhatchee River, Pea, Mitchell, and Little Choctawhatchee Rivers

Creeks: Peach, Holmes, Wrights, Bruce, Pine Log, Alaqua, Rocky, Black, Chickenhouse Branch, Depot, Econfina, Turkey, Cedar, and Bear Creeks

Bays: Choctawhatchee, St. Joseph, St. Andrew, and East, West, and North Bays

Swamps: Buzzard Roost, Dismal, Titi, and Devils Swamps

Overview

The Choctawhatchee River and Bay watershed (including the Pea River drainage area) cover approximately 3.4 million acres, with about 42 percent lying in Florida and the rest in Alabama. From the Florida-Alabama state line, the river flows south approximately 87 miles, draining six counties before discharging into Choctawhatchee Bay. The river is alluvial, characterized by a broad floodplain, seasonal flooding, and a heavy sediment load. It receives significant quantities of water from the Floridan aquifer system, and has both blackwater and spring-fed tributaries.

Image of The spring-fed Holmes Creek provides among the most diverse habitats and richest variety of fish, reptiles and mollusks in the Choctawhatchee River basin.
The spring-fed Holmes Creek provides among the most diverse habitats and richest variety of fish, reptiles and mollusks in the Choctawhatchee River basin.

Holmes Creek is particularly significant to the region's biological diversity. The creek has the most diverse fish habitats and highest species richness in the Choctawhatchee River watershed; it supports several species of rare or imperiled fish, and the creek's spring discharge and water quality are important to maintaining critical habitat for the endangered Gulf sturgeon downstream.

The main stem of the Choctawhatchee River also supports several threatened and rare mussel species. Tributaries to the river support relatively high populations and diversity of aquatic plants, fish, and invertebrates. The Okaloosa darter, one of only two federally endangered fish species in Florida, occupies only six stream systems that empty into Choctawhatchee Bay via Boggy and Rocky Bayous. Other endangered or threatened species in the watershed include the Choctawhatchee beach mouse, green turtle, and loggerhead turtle.

The Choctawhatchee River receives significant quantities of water from spring-fed tributaries.

A series of coastal dune lakes is located on Moreno Point, primarily in Walton County. These lakes are a distinctive feature of the Florida Panhandle and are important to wildlife along this coastline.

Image of A boat enters Choctawhatchee Bay and Destin Harbor from the Gulf of Mexico.
A boat enters Choctawhatchee Bay and Destin Harbor from the Gulf of Mexico. © Jim Vail

Choctawhatchee Bay is an estuary characterized by the interaction, mixing, and circulation of fresh water and salt water. It has one direct opening to the Gulf of Mexico at East Pass, adjacent to the city of Destin, and joins with Santa Rosa Sound to the west and the Intracoastal Waterway to the east. The bay has a number of bayous along its periphery. Tributary streams to the bayous, particularly those on the northern and western ends of the bay, provide additional fresh water.

Within the Florida portion of the watershed, most of the land cover consists of upland forest, with significant wetland systems along the river and its tributaries. Agricultural land use is more prominent in the northern portion of the watershed, particularly in Alabama. The population density in the watershed is mostly low, but there are some concentrations of urban land uses, particularly in the vicinity of Choctawhatchee Bay.

Human Impacts

The combined population of Okaloosa, Holmes, and Washington Counties grew 23 percent in 10 years, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Most of the growth is concentrated in coastal areas. The intense development accompanying this growth has resulted in an increase of polluted stormwater flowing into rivers and creeks, degrading water quality and suffocating benthic communities. Much of the Pea River and Choctawhatchee drainage basins depend on septic systems for the treatment and disposal of domestic wastewater. This creates the potential for contamination from failed septic systems.

Erosion and sedimentation are major concerns in both the Alabama and Florida portions of the Choctawhatchee and Pea River watersheds, as well as in Choctawhatchee Bay. Sediment samples collected in Choctawhatchee Bay in 1994 showed contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, lead, and mercury. The highest levels of toxicity were found in Cinco, Garnier, Boggy, Tom's, Rocky, and LaGrange Bayous and Destin Harbor.

Residential and commercial development have resulted in an increase of polluted stormwater flowing into rivers and creeks, degrading water quality.

Image of Poor water quality and loss of habitat could threaten the endangered Gulf sturgeon which migrates up Holmes Creek to spawn.
Poor water quality and loss of habitat could threaten the endangered Gulf sturgeon which migrates up Holmes Creek to spawn. © Jacob Osborne

In 1999, Choctawhatchee Bay exhibited symptoms of eutrophication, caused by relatively low flushing rates, warm water, algae growth, and significant and increasing nutrient loading. Unabated, eutrophication has profound implications in coastal systems, including nuisance algae blooms, depleted levels of dissolved oxygen (DO), fish kills, reduced water clarity, seagrass losses, the degradation of other habitats, and diminished aesthetic and recreational values. The loss of seagrass may also be caused by the changes in the range and variability of salinity that have occurred since the inlet at East Pass was created.

In 1999 and 2000, Choctawhatchee Bay experienced a persistent red tide, a plankton bloom that can discolor the water and release toxins that kill aquatic life and irritate human breathing. Many fish and approximately 49 dolphins were killed in the bay and nearby Gulf waters. Studies continue as to why red tide was so intense and persistent in the bay during that time. A decline in general water quality may be a factor.

In recognition of these impacts, DEP, the Northwest Florida Water Management District (NWFWMD), and local governmental, scientific, educational, and citizen organizations are working to develop strategies for protecting and restoring water quality and quantity in the Choctawhatchee watershed.

Interesting Facts:

  • The Choctawhatchee River is the fourth largest river in Florida in terms of its flow and the size of its drainage area.
  • The deepest point of Choctawhatchee Bay is north of Destin, at 43 feet.
  • Three species of snails, still unnamed, are endemic to Holmes Creek.
  • The Choctawhatchee River and upper Rocky Bayou are designated as Outstanding Florida Waters (OFWs).
  • Upper Rocky Bayou is a Florida Aquatic Preserve.


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