Whether you fish or boat on it, live around it or just use it as a backdrop for a good sunset photo, there’s no denying the importance of the Choctawhatcheee Bay.
Choctawhatchee Bay, which has a surface of 129 miles and touches six cities in Okaloosa and Walton counties combined, is worth taking care of. And that’s the mission of the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance.
“All that we do, we do so that we can make sure we have healthy waterways here for us to enjoy right now as well as into the future,” said Alison McDowell, CBA director.
The CBA, a non-profit organization that just celebrated its 20th anniversary, is all about sustaining healthy local waterways through a four-prong process: monitoring, education, restoration and research.
The bay, which touches Fort Walton Beach, Destin, Freeport, Niceville, Shalimar and Valparaiso, is fed by the Choctawhatchee River and together they make up the Choctawhatchee watershed.
“We’re concerned for the whole watershed but we work at the bay level,” McDowell said.
The CBA got its start in 1996 when a group of concerned citizens banded together with state officials at Northwest Florida State College to discuss how to take care of local resources, how they might be affected by development and what economic impact those resources have on the area.
“They were concerned about development and how that might impact our resources,” McDowell said. Thus the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance was formed.
From the beginning, CBA has been part of Northwest Florida State College.
“They adopted us and they let us use their building space, but other than that we are 100 percent grant and donor funded … which keeps us lean and mean,” she said.
In addition to keeping an eye on the bay, the CBA also has a special focus on Walton County’s rare Coastal Dune Lakes.
And to keep an eye out or do monitoring, the CBA is all about community involvement and stewardship.
The CBA has a volunteer water quality monitoring program where “citizen scientist” go out and take water samples in the river, bay, creeks and coastal dune lakes. The CBA has about 132 water quality stations right now throughout the watershed.
“We train them and they go out once a month and take water samples,” McDowell said, noting it takes about six hours a month.
Anyone can become a “citizen scientist,” McDowell said. All that is needed is a little bit of time and commitment.
Right now the CBA has about 34 volunteers that do the water quality monitoring.
Beverly and Lorentz Ottzen, who have owned a home in South Walton for more than 20 years, are two of those volunteers who are happy to serve.
“We have strong feelings for the environment,” Beverly said.
She and her husband have been part of the CBA lake watch program for a little over three years. The coastal dune lake they monitor is Deer Lake, which is located near their home.
“We feel it’s important to keep track of what goes on with these lakes,” she said. “What a precious commodity these lakes are to the area.”
Ottzen said it takes about a half day to do the water sampling and take measurements.
“It’s a pretty heavy commitment, but we enjoy it,” she said. “The more awareness we can get (for the lakes and environment), the better.”
Volunteers are also used to help with the CBA’s restoration programs, such as the living shorelines program.
This program deals mostly with oyster and salt marsh restoration.
“Because of man-made activity or natural activity like storms, we have eroding shoreline around the bay,” McDowell said.
Some folks put up seawalls to help with the erosion, but then that creates problems elsewhere.
The living shoreline is an alternative to a seawall that’s not going to have an adverse affect on other properties.
The CBA uses break waters, which are structures out in the water that break up the wave energy from eroding the shoreline.
“We bag up oyster shells to create these break waters and the oyster shells serve as a home for oysters,” McDowell said.
Once a live oyster settles on them, an adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.
“They can help clean the water,” she said.
Not only do the oysters help filter the water and slow down erosion, they are good for the fishermen.
“(The oyster reef) is also a habitat for redfish, pinfish and all the fish that people like to catch or use for bait, shrimp … anything like that can hide out on the oyster reefs,” she said.
Again, anyone can volunteer to help with this program of building oyster reefs
“It’s just a day’s work of bagging oysters, a lot of shoveling, and then we move the bags and place them in the water,” McDowell said.
The next day and place on the schedule for building a reef is Jan. 19 at Bluewater Bay Marina near Niceville.
Another way the CBA helps to sustain and keep local waterways healthy is through education and raising public awareness of how to be good stewards.
“We were in 22 schools this year,” McDowell said.
CBA partners with AmeriCorps and they go into the schools once a month with a curriculum that is centered on Choctawhatchee Bay.
For grades third through fifth, there is Grasses in Classes where students grow smooth core grass and have salt marsh nurseries.
In the middle schools, the program is tagged Dunes in Schools.
“The kids grow sea oats in the classroom and then they go out and plant the sea oats to restore habitat,” McDowell said.
In high school, the focus is on oysters and water chemistry.
The point behind going into the schools is to bring awareness.
“If we can reach their hearts and minds young, we can raise up the next generation of watershed stewards,” McDowell said. “We can have these kids making good decisions when they get into a place to make decisions.”
PLAN FOR FUTURE
“Everything we do ties back to creating that community of watershed stewards and people who are going to help us take care of our water,” McDowell said.
Helping to make those plans for the future is advisory board member and local restaurateur Chester Kroeger of Fudpucker’s.
“The Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance is the only organization that stands firmly at the forefront of managing water quality in our estuary,” Kroeger said. “That estuary is critical to so many things in our area, including our fishing industry, predominately the inshore fishery but also offshore.”
Fudpucker’s, located on Okaloosa Island and in Destin, conducts several fishing tournaments throughout the year with proceeds from the events benefiting the CBA.
“The CBA is the absolute best way for me to participate in preserving our bay for future generations.”