The Pensacola Bay watershed covers approximately 4.5 million acres and extends from southern Alabama through Florida’s central Panhandle. The watershed includes three major rivers – the Escambia, the Blackwater and the Yellow – as well as smaller tributaries. The northern portion of the watershed is largely agricultural lands or timber forests, while the coastal portion of the watershed contains urban and industrial areas.
The Pensacola Bay system is affected by numerous historic and current environmental stressors. In the 1960s and 70s, the bay received large industrial discharges of toxins and pollutants and some of these pollutants remain in the system today. In addition, roughly 20 percent of the segments in the Florida portion of the Pensacola Bay watershed are considered “impaired” under the Clean Water Act – largely a result of urban stormwater, agricultural fertilizer runoff and sewage and septic tank overflows.
Bayou Chico, which discharges directly into Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, is the only waterbody in the Pensacola Bay system that has a Basin Management Action Plan established, which identifies steps to reduce pollution. Given its influence on the health of the larger system, Bayou Chico and its tributaries are a high priority for restoration.
Although Pensacola Bay once had a viable commercial oyster fishery, today oyster reefs in the bay have declined by 72 percent and are largely closed to harvest. Restoring oyster reefs will provide habitat, stabilize shorelines and improve water quality and clarity in the Pensacola Bay system.
Marshes, wetlands and seagrass beds stabilize coastlines, trap and filter pollutants and provide habitat for fish and wildlife. However, all these habitats are in decline in Pensacola Bay. Since the 1960s, seagrass coverage has declined by nearly half while wetlands have declined by nearly three-quarters in some areas.