By DOTTY NIST
South Walton Community Council (SWCC) members and their guests recently heard from representatives of two organizations devoted to the well-being of area water resources.
This was at the forum presented by the SWCC on March 28 at the Coastal Branch Library.
Julie Terrell is executive director for the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA). The alliance was created in 1996 as a partnership effort of citizens, business people, Northwest Florida State College (NWFSC), state and federal regulatory agencies, and environmental organizations. Its mission is to sustain the Choctawhatchee Basin watershed and provide for its optimum use. The organization is headquartered at the Northwest Florida State College South Walton Center in Santa Rosa Beach.
Terrell explained that the CBA offers opportunities for citizens, educators and technical people to help promote the health of the Choctawhatchee Basin. The organization’s philosophy is that it is possible to use the watershed for recreational activities and still keep it healthy.
The CBA has four paid staff members, Terrell told the group, and gets much assistance from the college and from citizen volunteers. The CBA is engaged in water quality monitoring, restoration projects, education, and research.
Water quality monitoring was the first activity undertaken by the CBA. Volunteers take samples at more than 100 stations per month on bayous in Santa Rosa Beach and Freeport, in the coastal dune lakes, and also in Niceville, Destin, and Fort Walton Beach. Annual seagrass surveys are also conducted throughout the Choctawhatchee Bay.
Restoration projects focus on management of shorelines, reduction of excessive nutrients and sedimentation, improvement of water habitat through oyster reef construction, reduction of pollution sources, control of invasive plant species, and enhancement of native plant communities. Among CBA project sites are Cessna Park in Santa Rosa Beach, south Walton County’s coastal dune lakes, Clement Taylor Park in Destin, Liza Jackson Park in Fort Walton Beach, and Mattie Kelly Park on Joe’s Bayou in Destin.
The CBA works with schools in Walton and Okaloosa counties to involve children in grades K through 12 with hands-on environmental education activities that contribute to the restoration of the watershed. One example is the Grasses-in-Classes program, in which the CBA provides students with equipment and materials to raise shoregrasses in plant nurseries at their schools. Then, the CBA and partner organizations assist the students in planting those grasses in areas where they are needed to guard against erosion.
Other educational efforts of the CBA include public workshops and restoration and clean-up projects.
The CBA also assists universities and government agencies with research projects that add to knowledge about the natural resources of the Choctawhatchee Basin.
“The bay system has sustained our economy,” Terrell pointed out.
“The BP oil spill showed us we are all impacted by water quality;” she said, “it means our quality of life.”
She invited attendees to join the CBA and participate in CBA activities and projects as volunteers. Donations are also welcomed, she said, as water sampling equipment costs about $6,000 per unit and lasts only three years. Old jon boats are need, as well, for water sampling, Terrell commented.
Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper Michael Mullen serves as an advocate for the protection and restoration of the health of the river, its tributaries and watershed. He and more than 200 other keepers of waterways make up the Waterkeeper Alliance, a worldwide advocacy organization.
Mullen explained that the riverkeeper concept had its origin in England, with monarchs charging keepers with the task of protecting important fisheries.
In the United States, the riverkeeper movement started in 1966 in New York, when commercial and recreational fisherman united to save the Hudson River, whose fisheries were being threatened by industrial pollution. America got its first official riverkeeper, the Hudson Riverkeeper, in 1983.
“We do science, but we add advocacy to the science,” said Mullen, who holds a baccalaureate degree with a double major in chemistry and biology from Athens College, a master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Arkansas, and a master’s degree in biology from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He also has a certificate in watershed management from the University of British Columbia. Mullen is a Certified Professional in Erosion and Sediment Control.
The Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper (CRK) is based in Banks, Ala0.
“We are willing to mix it up with the polluters,” Mullen told the group.
He asserted that the waterways belong to the public and that no one has the right to pollute those resources.
“We have gotten almost all of the Choctawhatchee River in Alabama reclassified for swimming use,” Mullen revealed. “Under the Clean Water Act, prior uses must be defended,” he explained.
Mullen described the Choctawhatchee River system as a diverse one with many threats facing it. Among those, he enumerated, are a lack of public awareness, lack of pollution control, poor riparian management, excessive sedimentation, excessive nutrient loading, lack of comprehension of watershed management, proposed reservoirs, climate change, and mercury pollution.
Poor livestock management in the watershed is an important source of pollution, Mullen noted, and drought is a very serious issue.
Among the successes achieved by the Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper are an online complaint system for citizens who notice problems in the river basin, ongoing bacteriological monitoring of recreational sites, and trend monitoring of water quality at 54 sites in Alabama.
Among the goals of the Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper are to expand monitoring activities, including bacteriological testing, into Florida and the Lower Choctawhatchee River, along with the addition of an intern or second staff member, a Florida office, and another patrol boat. Mullen said he would also like to identify people to serve on the Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper Board.
He encouraged attendees to become members, spread the word about Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper and follow riverkeeper activities on the web page and on social media. Mullen was also interested in hearing about residents’ concerns and suggestions with regard to the Lower Choctawhatchee River.
Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper may be contacted via the web site www.ChoctawhatcheeRiver.org or by phone at (334) 807-1365.
Information on the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance is available on the web site www.BasinAlliance.org. The alliance may be contacted via e-mail at CBA@nwfsc.edu or by phone at (850) 200-4171.