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Pensacola Bay Watershed

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Image of the Pensacola Bay estuary covers 144 square miles
the Pensacola Bay estuary covers 144 square miles Amy Baldwin

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: Over 7,000 square miles total in Alabama and Florida; approximately 2,100 square miles in Florida

Major Cities and Towns: Pensacola, Gulf Breeze, Ft. Walton Beach, Milton, Crestview, Laurel Hill, Paxton, Century, Jay, and DeFuniak Springs

Counties: Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, and Walton Counties

Major Water Features:
Florida Portion of the Escambia River
Tributaries of the Escambia River are Pine Barren Creek, Canoe Creek, Mitchell Creek, Little Pine Barren Creek, McDavid Creek, Bray Mill Creek, Big Escambia Creek, Holland Branch, and Blue Water Creek.

Blackwater River
Tributaries to the Blackwater River are the Big Coldwater Creek (including the East and West Forks), Pond Creek, Big Juniper Creek, Juniper Creek, Panther Creek, Sweetwater Creek, Penny Creek, Mare Creek, Hurricane Creek, and Manning Creek. Lakes include Bear Lake and Hurricane Lake.

Yellow River
Tributaries to the Yellow River are Big Horse Creek, Murder Creek, Trammel Creek, Turkey Gobbler Creek, Davis Mill Creek, Burnt Grocery Creek, Julian Mill Creek, and Boiling Creek. Lake Karick is a man-made, managed impoundment.

Shoal River
Major tributaries are Gum Creek, Horseshoe Creek, Pond Creek, Long Creek, Pinelog Creek, Turkey Creek, Juniper Creek, and Titi Creek.

Pensacola Bay Estuary
The estuary comprises 5 interconnected arms or large embayments. The central embayment, Pensacola Bay, receives discharge from Escambia Bay, Santa Rosa Sound, and East Bay. The westernmost embayment is Escambia Bay, located at the mouth of the Escambia River. Mulatto Bayou and Pace Mill Creek discharge directly to the upper portion of Escambia Bay, and Indian and Trout Bayous discharge to the lower portion. The northeastern embayment, Blackwater Bay, receives discharge from the Blackwater and Yellow Rivers and Pond Creek, and discharges to East Bay. The larger bayous are Bayou Grande, Bayou Texar, and Bayou Chico.

Overview

Image of The Yellow River drains 1,365 square miles, of which about 60 percent is in Florida. Its drainage area has the highest elevation in Florida. In Santa Rosa County, the river cuts into the highlands in many places, producing bluffs as high as 40 feet. In its lower reaches, it flows through a large, woody, swampy floodplain.
The Yellow River drains 1,365 square miles, of which about 60 percent is in Florida. Its drainage area has the highest elevation in Florida. In Santa Rosa County, the river cuts into the highlands in many places, producing bluffs as high as 40 feet. In its lower reaches, it flows through a large, woody, swampy floodplain. Donald Ray

The Pensacola Bay watershed headwaters are in southern Alabama. Within the Florida portion of the watershed, the Escambia River, Blackwater River, Shoal River, and Yellow River drainage basins comprise the major sources of water to the Pensacola Bay estuary. In addition to the major river systems, several bayous discharge directly to Pensacola Bay. The largest are Bayou Grande, Bayou Texar, and Bayou Chico.

The Blackwater River drains 860 square miles, of which about 80 percent is in Florida. For most of its length in Florida, the river flows through the Blackwater River State Forest in Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties before discharging into the Pensacola Bay estuary. Tidal fluctuations can reach as far as six miles upstream.

The Yellow River drains 1,365 square miles, of which about 60 percent is in Florida. Its drainage area has the highest elevation in Florida. The river drains the western highlands and carries more sediment than other Florida rivers of comparable size. In Santa Rosa County, the river cuts into the highlands in many places, producing bluffs as high as 40 feet. In its lower reaches, it flows through a large, woody, swampy floodplain. Tidal fluctuations have been observed as far as 19 miles upstream. Both the Blackwater River and the Yellow River (and its tributary, the Shoal River, which provides about half of the Yellow River's discharge) are characterized as blackwater streams.

The Escambia River drains 4,223 square miles, of which only about 10 percent is in Florida. A large, alluvial river, it carries a heavy sediment load, and seasonal fluctuations in flow are quite significant. The river and its tributaries have a well-developed, dendritic surface drainage pattern. Tidal fluctuations are noticeable as far as 10 miles upstream from the bay.

The diverse habitats in the watershed support nearly 140 rare, imperiled, or threatened plant and animal species, including the Gulf sturgeon.

Image of The Blackwater River drains 860 square miles, of which about 80 percent is in Florida. For most of its length in Florida, the river flows through the Blackwater River State Forest in Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties before discharging into the Pensacola Bay estuary. Tidal fluctuations can reach as far as six miles upstream.
The Blackwater River drains 860 square miles, of which about 80 percent is in Florida. For most of its length in Florida, the river flows through the Blackwater River State Forest in Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties before discharging into the Pensacola Bay estuary. Tidal fluctuations can reach as far as six miles upstream. Donald Ray

The Pensacola Bay estuary covers 144 square miles and comprises five interconnected arms or large embayments: Pensacola Bay, Escambia Bay, Blackwater Bay, East Bay, and Santa Rosa Sound. Tidal fluctuations and flushing of the estuary are limited. Railroad and highway bridges also limit mixing between the waters of the upper and lower parts of the bay. Water exits the estuary through a narrow pass, Caucas Channel, at the mouth of Pensacola Bay. Santa Rosa Sound also receives little freshwater inflow.

The diverse habitats in the watershed support at least 70 identified rare, imperiled, or threatened animal species, including the Gulf sturgeon, and at least 68 rare, imperiled, or threatened plant species. A number of these species are endemic. Conservation and recreational lands make up a substantial part of the watershed, representing a diverse assemblage of ecological types and protecting many of the watershed's water resources and fragile ecosystems. These lands include Blackwater River State Forest; Blackwater, Yellow, and Escambia Rivers Water Management Areas; Garcon Point Water Management Area; and Gulf Islands National Seashore. Large tracts of Eglin Air Force Base are also managed for habitat conservation and the protection of endangered species.

The prominent upland land use is sandhills, pinelands, and hardwood hammock. Extensive tracts of mature longleaf pine forest are still present, particularly in the Conecuh National Forest-Blackwater River State Forest-Eglin Air Force Base corridor. Freshwater wetland communities are predominantly bay swamp, mixed hardwood swamp, and freshwater marsh. The Florida Natural Areas Inventory also lists the rare seepage slope community as present in the watershed. These shrub thickets or boggy meadows form at the base of a slope where water moving downslope or seeping creates moist soil conditions. Pitcher plants are commonly found on seepage slopes in the watershed. Ravines and steepheads occur along the Escambia River.

A number of waterbodies have been given additional protection through designation as Outstanding Florida Waters (OFWs), including the Blackwater River; Shoal River; all waters in the Yellow River Marsh Aquatic Preserve, Fort Pickens Aquatic Preserve, Gulf Island National Seashore, and Blackwater River State Park; Escambia Bay Bluffs; and Milton to Whiting Field.

Human Impacts

The basin has experienced significant population growth since the 1950s, with the populations of Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties increasing more than 500 percent between 1950 and 2000. This growth has led to increased pollution from human activities, including stormwater runoff and residential, commercial, and industrial land uses. A dramatic increase in tourism, beginning in the 1980s, has led to the rapid development of previously pristine wilderness beaches, particularly around Panama City and Fort Walton Beach.

The sand and gravel aquifer in the western Panhandle is susceptible because it is near the surface and recharged by rainfall. A long history of industrial land use in the region has resulted in several significant instances of ground water contamination.

In the Blackwater River drainage basin, land clearing associated with agriculture, silviculture, and recreation, as well as dirt road erosion, have led to increased sedimentation. The heavy use of vehicles on unpaved roads in Blackwater River State Forest has increased soil erosion, leading to higher turbidity in streams and smothered aquatic habitat.

Sedimentation is a problem in the Pensacola Bay as a result of poor flushing and the input of large sediment loads from tributaries. In addition, current and historical land uses and industrial practices have left a legacy of polluted sediments.

Rapid population growth during the past few decades has led to increased pollution from human activities, including stormwater runoff and residential, commercial, and industrial land uses.

The areas of greatest concern for sediments are Bayou Chico, lower Bayou Grande, upper Bayou Texar, mid- and upper Escambia Bay, and Pensacola Bay, near the downtown Pensacola waterfront. Historically, numerous industrial and domestic waste facilities discharged to Pensacola Bay and the lower Escambia River. Bayous Grande, Texar, and Chico are all heavily industrialized and urbanized, and stormwater runoff from Pensacola tends to become concentrated in the bayous. Heavy metals are present in sediments in Bayous Chico, Grande, and Texar, and in Pensacola Bay. Pesticides have been found in all of these waterbodies, including many of the older, now-banned chlorinated pesticides. Nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, are also concerns in all of these waterbodies.

Historically, fish kills frequently occurred in the Pensacola Bay estuary and its tributary bayous, particularly Bayous Texar, Grande, and Chico. Many of these kills were large-more than 1,000 fish. However, water quality improvements have somewhat reduced the size and number of fish kills. More recently, red tide events in 1999 and 2000 resulted in fish kills.

The current seagrass coverage is much less than was present historically. The earliest documented loss of seagrasses was recorded in 1955, with the commencement of a discharge from the Monsanto Company's Pensacola facility. Additional discharges from chemical plants exacerbated seagrass losses. Most seagrasses have been lost from Escambia Bay, where they were common as late as the early 1950s. Large areas of the Pensacola Bay estuary-predominantly in Pensacola Bay, Bayou Chico, Bayou Grande, and Bayou Texar-also have a degraded benthic index, which is a measure of biological health based on the types of aquatic insects found in bottom sediments.

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 Pensacola Bay watershed.

Interesting Facts:

  • The earliest exploration of Pensacola Bay included the Spanish explorers and conquistadors Ponce De Leon in 1513, Panfilo de Narvaez in 1528, and Hernando de Soto in 1539.
  • During Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, the storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico came into Escambia Bay, washing out the Interstate 10 bridge over the bay.
  • Garcon Point peninsula is home to one of the few intact pitcher plant prairies in Florida where approximately 13 endangered or threatened species grow, including the imperiled panhandle lily.
  • The Yellow River and the Escambia River provide important freshwater spawning habitat for the Gulf sturgeon.
  • Pensacola is nicknamed "the City of Five Flags" due to the governments that have flown flags over it during its history: Spain (Castile), France, Great Britain, the Confederate States of America, and the United States.


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