Restoring the Gulf Coast
Pensacola Bay The site of our coastal restoration efforts. © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Stories in Florida

Restoring Florida's Gulf Coast

TNC is working to ensure a healthy future for our estuaries, watersheds, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Restoring the Gulf of Mexico is a daunting task. Decades of degradation, compounded by the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, have presented scientists with an array of problems to solve — declining fisheries, eroding shorelines and sea-level rise, to name a few.

Our Estuaries

In Florida, our estuaries, areas along the coast in which freshwater meets ocean waters, are among the most productive natural areas. Our nearshore waters, like bays and lagoons, are dynamic systems and are home to unique plants and animals, cycling and producing food sources and nutrients that support the health of our marine environment, our fisheries, our economy. More than 70 percent of Florida's recreationally and commercially important fishes, crustaceans and shellfish spend part of their lives in estuaries.

Community-Based Watershed Plans

Water supplies, animal habitat, and recreation are all dependent on healthy watersheds.

A watershed is an area of land that drains rain water into one location such as a stream, lake or wetland. These water bodies supply our drinking water, water for agriculture and manufacturing, offer opportunities for recreation (canoeing and fishing, anyone?) and provide habitat to numerous plants and animals. Unfortunately, various forms of pollution, including runoff and erosion, can interfere with the health of the watershed. That is why proper watershed protection is necessary to you and your community.

Watershed protection is a means of protecting a lake, river, or stream by managing the entire watershed that drains into it. Clean, healthy watersheds depend on an informed public to make the right decisions when it comes to the environment and actions made by the community.

We work with stakeholders from local, state and federal governments, NGOs, community groups and citizens in the watershed planning process. This important work reaches across political and organizational boundaries and focuses on improving and protecting the watersheds today and for future generations.

See our community-based watershed plans for Florida below. This watershed planning work led to the establishment of National Estuary Programs in the state of Florida. 

National Estuary Programs

The Nature Conservancy and our partners are hard at work to achieve restoration success along our shoreline and inland, at a scale that is beyond what has previously been accomplished. We are poised to make sound, strategic decisions on resource investment, to further water quality, restoration of natural systems and watershed protection.

One of the most effective ways to achieve conservation goals in coastal communities is through National Estuary Programs (NEP). NEPs are non-regulatory programs funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and local communities. Each NEP community works together to identify environmental issues in the watershed and apply science-based solutions to restore the estuary’s health.  In Florida, we are fortunate to have 4 NEPs: Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor on the Gulf Coast and the Indian River Lagoon on the east coast, yet there are other important coastal areas where an NEP could offer valuable benefits. 

Florida’s Panhandle has been described as the Emerald Coast, a jewel showcasing Florida’s unique and special lands, waters and the species that depend on them – oysters, birds, fish, seagrass and so much more. The Panhandle region boasts some of the highest biodiversity in the country.  As ground zero for the impacts of the oil spill, the Panhandle region would greatly benefit from the collaborative community based approach an NEP offers. Recognizing the need and the potential, the Conservancy is working with local governments and other partners to create estuary programs focused on a watershed approach to conservation of the Panhandle’s unique natural, economic and cultural resources. As a direct result of our efforts, the Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Council – the agencies responsible for distributing portions of the oil spill funds – is funding the creation of one new estuary program in Florida’s Panhandle. 

Creating the first estuary program in the Panhandle is an excellent step to ensuring protection and restoration of this remarkable region. The Conservancy continues to pursue additional funding to create Estuary Programs for all of the region’s watersheds. The creation of Estuary Programs will help ensure the use of sound science to identify solutions and projects that address the biggest impacts to the region and that will have the greatest return on investment.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Gulf of Mexico Program recently awarded a $2 million cooperative agreement to establish the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program. The project is the result of several years of collaboration and is the first Estuary Program in Northwest Florida. The program will leverage and coordinate efforts among federal, state, and local agencies and the public to achieve publicly identified goals and objectives to restore and conserve the environment and the economy of Pensacola and Perdido Bays for generations to come.

The establishment of the first ever Estuary Program in Florida’s Panhandle will help to safeguard and restore our precious coastlines and watersheds, benefitting people, natural systems, and wildlife. The Nature Conservancy in Florida is thrilled to play a role in the formation and implementation of this essential conservation solution.

Our Projects and Benefits to Our Estuaries

The following highlights some of our many partnerships and efforts in the Gulf of Mexico:

  • Reducing wastewater: We’ve successfully built a coalition among Gulf Power, Bay county and the Panama City to implement wastewater reuse. The project will ultimately connect county and city domestic wastewater plants to the Gulf Power Lansing Smith Generating Plant. By connecting these plants, we are reducing the amount of domestic wastewater entering the community's surface water, while also reducing Gulf Power's demand for fresh water.
  • Yellow River: In Santa Rosa County, we worked to secure funding from the county’s Deepwater Horizon RESTORE funding allocation to address excess sediment entering the Yellow River from unpaved road. Too much sediment can harm the seagrasses, salt marsh, and oysters.
  • Pensacola: We are designing one of the largest scale oyster habitat restoration projects in Florida, located in East Bay in Santa Rosa County. Oysters in this bay system have been declining since the 1800’s. Oyster reefs, one of the world’s most imperiled marine habitats, are now on the rebound with projects that will restore reefs along 6.5 miles of shoreline. The Conservancy secured Deepwater Horizon oil spill funds for this project and we are awaiting additional funds for an oyster shell recycling program, to map oyster habitat in the bay, and for a public outreach and educational program.
  • Apalachicola: The quintessential area of the Gulf that is associated with the word oyster has experienced significant decline. The Conservancy is working with researchers to map the bay’s intertidal oyster reefs – a key piece of missing information that is essential to inform future restoration and management of this globally and locally imperiled marine habitat. 
  • Charlotte Harbor:  Like many other estuaries in Florida and the Gulf, oysters once thrived here but have since declined by 85-90 percent. Working with partners in this National Estuary, the Conservancy was instrumental in developing the first and only estuary-wide oyster restoration plan in Florida. Using the plan as a guide, the Conservancy and community partners implemented a pilot project to test different methods for oyster restoration along a stretch of shoreline in the City of Punta Gorda. Those that work best will be used to kick start oyster restoration throughout the estuary. One method uses an experimental biodegradable material (called BESE), made from potato starch and developed by companies in the Netherlands for use as substrate - a surface - on which oysters can grow. Florida is the only U.S. state where the material is being tested, and our pilot project is one of just a few. If proven successful, this new material could reduce or replace plastics currently used for oyster and other wetland habitat restoration efforts.

Read our community-based watershed plans for Florida. 

Watershed Plans

Watershed Plans

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The Conservancy is hard at work on the ground, in the water, and with local, state and federal governments, universities, environmental organizations, businesses, and individuals to ensure a healthy future for our estuaries, watersheds, and the Gulf of Mexico.