The Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) has been awarded its sixth Gulf Power-supported conservation grant that will help the organization continue engaging community stewardship, rebuild eroding shorelines and restore the declining oyster population.

So far, 9,000 residents including 1,000 students of Walton and Okaloosa counties, have been learning the importance of conservation through the CBA’s oyster gardening and other programs the Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration Program grants have funded since 2013.

The Five Star grants are awarded in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and other public and private funders. This year’s grant of $40,000 will have a $123,195 on-the-ground impact with the grantee’s match.

“We are thrilled to receive the grant and continue the work to engage more citizen and student gardeners in restoring the declining oyster habitat,” said Alison McDowell, director of Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance and South Walton Center of Northwest Florida State College. “Our whole goal is to provide our community with the education and experience to empower them to take action, be aware and be involved in sustainability.”

The CBA operates under Northwest Florida State College Foundation and will use this year’s grant to restore two acres of oyster habitat in Choctawhatchee Bay, an estuary in Okaloosa and Walton counties of Northwest Florida. The project will engage 150 citizen oyster gardeners, 450 students and 400 additional community members to enhance the declining oyster population.

Members of the Paideia Home School Cooperative are among the volunteer oyster gardeners who enjoy it so much, they wouldn’t let rain showers stop them from tending their oyster garden on a recent Friday.

Every week the students meet at Valparaiso’s Florida Park on Rocky Bayou to study the Choctawhatchee Bay System and the important role oysters play in it by growing their own oysters in a cage that’s dropped into the bayou.

“We come down and pull the cage out of the water, measure the young oysters and catalog their size,” said Ben Mathers, one of the students. “It’s like a reef restoration project but on a small-scale to help kids learn about the oyster and its lifecycle. Oysters are one of the main factors to monitor, along with seagrass and shrimp and crabs, to understand how well the ecosystem in the bayou is doing.”