The cool, clear Escambia River is popular for fishing and swimming, and is largely protected under District ownership. Some 30 miles of forested river corridor, covering about 35,000 acres of floodplain, is being preserved in its natural state for posterity. While providing access for nature appreciation and recreation, the area, operated as the Escambia River Water Management Area (WMA), also secures a vegetated buffer that filters runoff and preserves water quality in an endangered system, which flows to Pensacola Bay. The extensive preserve also offers a continuous ecosystem of diverse habitats, rich in mature bottomland hardwood forest, pine uplands and estuarine marsh.
Bluff Springs is a recent addition, a rolling tract overlooking the river mouth and surrounded by District lands. The District is managing the tract to restore and enhance bottomland hardwood habitat, as well as returning a pine plantation to old growth forest habitat. Access roads have been improved, and boundaries are marked and posted.
The Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) mitigation program and Florida Forever funds paid for the 311.3-acre parcel. Florida Forever funds also helped restore Big Escambia to its original channel, eliminating about 10,000 tons of sediment a year from washing into the Escambia River and Bay.
The Escambia River WMA provides several boat ramps and primitive campsites, as well as the Mystic Springs Group Use Campsite, available on weekends by reservation for groups of 25 or less. A group area permit application is required. It includes primitive campsites, picnic tables, fire rings, trails, charcoal grills, a toilet and a pavilion. A public boat ramp is located nearby.
The Pensacola Bay watershed receives abundant rainfall (about 60 inches a year) and drains almost 7,000 square miles, two-thirds within Alabama, through a narrow pass to the Gulf. The watershed encompasses four rivers, Escambia, Blackwater, East Bay and Yellow/Shoal and five estuaries, the Pensacola, Escambia, Blackwater and East bays and Santa Rosa Sound.
Over centuries of human enterprise, from Spain’s 16th century colonizing attempts to modern growth and industry, the watershed has suffered impacts. Stormwater scouring has reduced the health and productivity of the poorly flushed bay, diminishing seagrass habitat, and in the 1970s, causing extensive fish kills. The District has also closed several public wells and passed a moratorium on new wells in coastal Escambia County, where the near surface Sand and Gravel Aquifer was contaminated by various land uses.
These impacts have made the Pensacola Bay watershed a priority of the District’s Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) program, which was created by the 1987 legislature. SWIM plan initiatives have helped restore life to dead bayous, transformed drainage ditches into flowering stormwater gardens and led to the purchase of a 1,500-acre bayside park, known as Jones Swamp Preserve.
Recognizing that public purchase of natural lands is one of our most effective tools against further degradation, the District has also purchased more than 56,000 acres along three major rivers of the Pensacola Bay watershed. These comprise a majority of the Escambia River, 19 miles along the Yellow/Shoal and several stunning parcels on the Blackwater River. Limiting these areas to native habitat restoration and public recreation will preserve water quality in the rivers and bays.
Pensacola Bay is barrier rimmed by the nation’s largest protected seashore, Gulf Islands National Seashore. Its white sand beaches and sparkling Gulf waters draw visitors year-round. In 2006, following the five major storms, the District coordinated the first ever federally-funded hurricane cleanup of Pensacola Bay. The cleanup removed boating hazards and amassed 2,100 cubic yards of wreckage and hazardous waste, well under estimated costs. Divers collected chunks of siding, air conditioners, dumpsters and mattresses from five of the most debris-strewn areas near the City of Gulf Breeze, Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach.
Also, District-awarded Florida Forever funds helped the City of Pensacola install stormwater treatment in the Carpenter Creek basin and increase storage and treatment at the city’s largest stormwater management facility, Long Hollow Pond. This will potentially treat the entire sub-basin, and reduce flooding and pollution to Pensacola Bay. The City of Gulf Breeze also was awarded Florida Forever funds to help treat and reduce floods and polluted runoff to Pensacola Bay.
High bluffs overlooking the river mouth characterize the scenic Blackwater River Water Management Area (WMA). It includes an island and two peninsula tracts accessible only by boat and features towering juniper, pine, magnolia and live oak trees. The Creeks called this dark, tannin-stained water “Oka Lusa” (water-black).
The entire WMA covers about 370 acres along the river and Pond Creek in Santa Rosa County, near Milton, plus a nearly 30-acre peninsular tract, containing floodplain wetlands between Wright Basin and a high river levee dominated by hardwood trees. Several parcels were purchased with DOT mitigation funds to offset wetland impacts from widening nearby Highway 87 and improving U.S. Highway 90 and the CSX Railroad bridge in Santa Rosa County. In addition, the District awarded Florida Forever funds to help stabilize an abandoned borrow pit and reduce sedimentation into Clear Creek, a tributary of Blackwater River and Blackwater Bay.
The river is a 31-mile state-designated canoe trail, flowing through the Blackwater River State Forest, in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties, and emptying into the Blackwater and Pensacola bays. It is popular for paddling, swimming, fishing and camping. Along its bends white sandbars invite camping or picnicking. The state forest also offers shaded campsites a short walk from the river. The area has been recognized for its exceptional value in illustrating the natural history of Florida. Atlantic white cedars line the river and one of these is a Florida Champion, among the largest and oldest of its species. The tree is located 15 miles northeast of Milton, off U.S. 90.