The Choctawhatchee River and Bay watershed drains a vast 5,350 square miles, less than half of it in Florida. An alluvial river, it is characterized by a broad floodplain, seasonal flooding and a heavy sediment load. Its old growth bottomland hardwood forests have drawn ornithologists searching for elusive ivory-billed woodpeckers. The fourth longest river in Florida and the third largest in flow, its major tributaries in Florida are Holmes, Wrights, Sandy, Pine Log, Seven Run and Bruce creeks.
The Choctawhatchee River flows through the Dougherty Karst Plain, and boasts at least 13 springs and numerous spring fed tributaries, according to a District springs inventory. Favorites are Washington Blue and Potter springs, both located off Route 79 north of Ebro. The karst plain’s permeable limestone formation allows ample local replenishment, but also makes ground water supplies vulnerable to surface activities.
Choctawhatchee Bay is a 27-mile-long estuary, inter-mixing fresh and salt water. Other freshwater tributaries are Turkey, Rocky, Swift and Alaqua creeks. East Pass, near Destin, is the only direct link to the Gulf of Mexico, although the bay also joins with Santa Rosa Sound to the west and the Intracoastal Waterway to the east. The bay once admitted pirates who repaired their boats here and married Indian maidens.
The endangered Okaloosa darter is found in several tributaries, as are the bony-plated Gulf sturgeon, alligator gar and several rare snails, reptiles and amphibians. Habitats range from freshwater springs and steephead streams, to tidal marshes and seagrass beds. They also encompass relic dunes, xeric hammocks, coastal scrub and pine flatwood forests. Morrison Spring is the largest of 13 springs the District has inventoried on the river.
Walton County was awarded Florida Forever funds to restore one of its striking coastal dune lakes, Oyster Lake, and reconnect wetland habitat that had been fragmented by development. Additionally, grant funds were awarded to reduce sediment pollution to Chocktawhatchee Bay, both from a mile of dirt roads and a ditch network on the bay, as well as to stabilize unpaved Roping Road along a tributary of the river.
Rapid coastal growth in Okaloosa and Walton counties has required planning to prevent natural habitat fracture or degradation by stormwater pollution. In 1999 and 2000, Choctawhatchee Bay experienced a persistent red tide that killed many fish and approximately 49 dolphins in the bay and nearby gulf waters.
The District has purchased over 57,000 acres, or 85 percent of the floodplain, on the Choctawhatchee River to prevent further declines in water quality, preserve natural systems and reduce impacts following 13 major floods over the last century. This public ownership also provides access for recreation. It is managed as the Choctawhatchee River and Holmes Creek Water Management Area.
The District has provided numerous boat landings, and at Tilley Landing recreational area on Lost Lake, a covered picnic pavilion with tables and grills, parking and a stabilized small boat ramp. Tilley Landing is located south of Redbay, off Highway 81. Hunting, fishing, boating, camping, hiking, horseback riding, bird-watching and nature appreciation are all available. Call the District Lands Division for a hunting brochure, (850)539-5999.
Public lands, including Eglin Air Force Base reservation, protect a quarter-million acres within the watershed. Pristine beaches, featuring plants pruned by salt spray and wind, are popular with visitors and campers at Grayton Beach, Henderson Beach and Topsail Hill Preserve state parks. Along the bay are Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park and Eden Gardens State Park, with its century-old Wesley House and gardens. Visitors to Falling Waters State Park can gaze down a 67-foot waterfall into a smooth-walled “chimney” sink. Ponce de Leon Springs State Park attracts swimmers, as it vents 14 million gallons a day at a constant 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
State forests include Point Washington and Pinelog. The Greenway Trail Network expects to connect Grayton Beach, Deer Lake and Topsail Hill with neighborhoods and schools along more than 27 miles of coastal trail, with branches to Holmes Creek and Pinelog State Forest. Call the District Lands Division for available brochures, (850)539-5999.