Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed

Greater Apalachicola Basin

Landscape at a Glance

A map showing the Greater Apalachicola Basin focal area.

Map of Greater Apalachicola Basin focal area by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

The Apalachicola River Watershed Focal Area lies at the terminus of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River system in Northwest Florida and accounts for the second largest freshwater inflow to the Gulf via the Apalachicola River – which is also 35 percent of the west coast of Florida’s total freshwater input. Approximately 75 percent of the ACF basin, however, is within the state of Georgia, beginning north of Atlanta.

In conjunction with major freshwater inputs, the Apalachicola River basin has nationally significant forests and some of the highest biological diversity east of the Mississippi River, including the greatest number of freshwater fish species in Florida (86 identified) and habitats for more than 300 bird and more than 50 mammal species. Diminished flow rates resulting from recent droughts and upstream consumptive water uses have impacted the ecology of the river systems and, subsequently, the ecology of Apalachicola Bay, which is directly influenced by the amount, timing and duration of freshwater inflow from the Apalachicola River. The coastal systems of this focal area also include critical habitat for two federally listed species, the wintering piping plover and the Gulf sturgeon. These coastal systems are nationally recognized for their important environmental resources through such designations as a State Aquatic Preserve, Outstanding Florida Waters, National Estuarine Research Reserve and a Marine Protected Area.

Perhaps the greatest overall conservation need in the ACF basin, and thus this focal area, is a coordinated approach to managing resources in a way that balances economic, ecological and social needs. Although only 14 percent of the Apalachicola River basin (approximately 2,800 square miles) is in Florida, much of this is publicly managed land that could potentially contribute to the health of the river and the bay through increased water quality and quantity. For example, nearly 11 percent of the rivers, streams, creeks and tributaries of Florida’s portion of the Apalachicola basin originate in or flow through the Apalachicola National Forest.

The Service has confidence that identifying conservation measures and implementing restoration activities to achieve water efficiency – incorporating adaptive management for fish and wildlife resources to water control operations, predictive drought management, and investment in science – will likely offer tangible opportunities to improve water quality and quantity. We also believe it is important for partners and stakeholders to join us in considering the importance of adaptive management, given the multifaceted suite of issues and opportunities affecting this landscape. The resulting effect of increased water return will ultimately improve the area’s ecosystem health and habitat for numerous threatened and endangered species.

Target Species

A dark mussel with a bright yellow tag in a hand.

The federally endangered oval pigtoe mussel. Photo by USFWS.

Efforts to ensure adequate water quantity and quality in the Apalachicola watershed will support sustainable populations of the focal area’s rich diversity of aquatic biota. Numerous federally endangered mussels are found in the region, including the fat threeridge, the shinyrayed pocketbook, the Gulf moccasinshell and the oval pigtoe. The purple bankclimber and the Chipola slabshell, federally threatened species, are also found here. Such efforts will also likely benefit the recovery of the federally threatened Gulf sturgeon, whose overall population objectives are couched as catch-per-unit-effort during monitoring, with a short-term target of no decline from the baseline level over a three-to-five-year period; and a long-term target of having efforts underway to restore lost or degraded habitat and the population demonstrated to be self-sustaining.

Similar to the uplands of the Panhandle lands, the terrestrial habitats of the Apalachicola watershed support many pine-dependent species such as the reticulated and the frosted flatwoods salamanders and the eastern indigo snake; however, quantitative population objectives do not exist for many of them. Though there is a recovery plan for red-cockaded woodpeckers, no core or secondary populations occur in this focal area. A number of plants are endemic to this region, including some that are federally threatened and for which recovery objectives have been established (e.g., the Godfrey’s butterwort and the Florida skullcap, each with an objective of 15 managed and protected populations across their historic range).

We place an overall emphasis on improved water quality in this focal area to help recover species like Gulf sturgeon and endangered mussels. However, water quality and flow improvements from land conversion and enhanced wastewater treatment as well as sediment reduction features like living shorelines and improved roads will also benefit many other freshwater aquatic species like Gulf Coast striped bass, Alabama shad, shoal bass, and at-risk mussels like the Apalachicola floater and saltwater species like oysters, red drum, flounder, and more. Similarly, we promote actions that restore or enhance resilience and natural conditions of native pine communities for our target species. Those will also aid other animals such as white-tailed deer, turkeys, and squirrels through improved forest management.

High Priority Actions Based on the Service’s Vision

Improve water quality and quantity in the Apalachicola River watershed for the Gulf sturgeon, shellfish (including freshwater mussels and oysters), seagrass beds, fisheries and migratory birds.

Next Steps

  • Encourage partners to include the freshwater flow needs of the Apalachicola River, floodplain and bay in planning efforts in order to provide long term benefits for fish and wildlife conservation.
  • Support and encourage the development of additional formal partnerships focused on estuary ecosystem restoration that can use information in Surface Water Improvement and Management Plans (as well as outputs from other efforts described below) to prioritize restoration needs and seek funding for project implementation.
  • Identify and prioritize eroding segments along Apalachicola Bay that degrade water quality and benthic habitat, followed by the application of living shoreline stabilization treatments where needed and appropriate by voluntary landowners to restore natural habitat elements, control erosion and improve water quality.
  • Improve water quality to Apalachicola Bay by identifying and reducing point source nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) pollution inputs and implementing necessary habitat restoration actions to benefit estuarine species.
  • Improve water quality and habitat in the Chipola River Watershed for the Gulf sturgeon and freshwater mussels using sediment retention basins; restored runoff conveyance systems at unpaved road crossings identified as having “poor condition” and a “high sedimentation risk”; restoration of fish passage where barriers have been identified; and paving of roads at identified stream crossings contributing high sediment loads.
  • Restore and maintain St. Vincent Island (part of the St. Vincent NWR) to ensure healthy and viable ecological communities, with an emphasis on migratory birds and threatened and endangered species. Activities may include hydrologic restoration through road removal in place of low water crossings and culvert placement, prescribed fire, and seasonal manipulation of water that provides or enhances habitat for migratory birds and fresh and saltwater fish species.
  • Work with willing landowners to protect lands via fee acquisition and/or conservation easements within the approved acquisition boundary of St. Vincent NWR to benefit migratory birds and threatened and endangered species.
  • Complete, as appropriate, the full Watershed Threats Assessment (including factors such as pollutant loading and fish passage barriers) to identify and quantify habitat degradation throughout the watershed and develop restoration recommendations.
  • In areas in which it would provide the most significant water quality benefits for fish and wildlife, retrofit current wastewater treatment technology and convert septic systems to sewer systems in targeted sub-watersheds to reduce nutrient pollution impacts and improve the overall water quality of Apalachicola Bay.
  • Implement best management practices such as livestock exclusion devices and solar-powered wells to reduce damage incurred by livestock including bankside erosion, sedimentation and nonpoint source pollution to improve water quality and habitat affecting listed freshwater mussels and fish.

Work with partners to identify important conservation opportunities to protect water quality including the acquisition of permanent conservation easements and/or fee title lands in vulnerable watershed areas such as the Flint River, especially Spring Creek.

Next Steps

Three people gather around a display board on sandy soil.

Conducting outreach on the benefits of prescribed fire and longleaf pine restoration at St Vincent NWR. Photo by Jennifer Hinckley, USFWS.

  • Explore opportunities to provide long-term forest protection through conservation easements or fee acquisitions to maintain water quality and keep healthy populations of targeted fish and wildlife species on the landscape.
  • Implement existing water-use efficiency and conservation policies and practices.
  • Provide incentives and opportunities to agricultural stakeholders to implement management practices (e.g., equipment retrofits, center pivot irrigation systems and sod-based rotation tillage practices) that will help increase base flows.
  • Work with water users to implement actions that maximize water returns, including the targeted conversion from septic to sewer systems (i.e., in areas in which it would provide the most significant water quality benefits for fish and wildlife); the development of storm water management strategies; and minimizing land use for agriculture to increase groundwater infiltration.
  • Encourage development that is both economically feasible as well as environmentally sensitive. For example, strive to meet commercial and recreational navigation needs while preserving or enhancing aquatic habitat.
  • Increase the scientific knowledge throughout the focal area and overall ACF basin by completing studies identified as priority in the Surface Water Improvement and Management Plan for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin.