Due to the goals and objectives of this regional project, this study is divided into three sections: the current geological conditions of the town and surrounding county, the pre-existing aquatic conditions, and the present state of the agricultural landscape within the county.
Sea level rise is a concern for the town of Port St. Joe due to it's relationship with the Bay; both physically and economically. The highest recorded flooding between 1976-2015, occurred in 2005 where the average flood level observed its peak at 6.43 feet mean higher high water (MHHW), which is the average height of the highest tide recorded at a tide station each day during the recording period. This, compared with future sea level rise projection maps, indicate that floods above 7 feet may cause significant concern. Areas within Port St. Joe that would be vulnerable to reoccurring intensive flooding of 7 feet include 1 hazardous waste site, 5 wastewater sites, 15 miles of road, 1 hospital and 2 sq. miles of land.
Current data collected from the Gulf County Canal and St. Joseph Bay shows evidence of runoff pollution and sediment intrusion from the Apalachicola River freshwater system, but the state still considers St. Joseph Bay to be independent of freshwater influence. Although most of the data showing sediment and pollutants in St. Joseph Bay is considered below the Florida Department of Health’s thresholds, there is a need for the state to conduct further research in order to determine how much freshwater is entering St. Joseph Bay and how much saltwater is leaving. Evidence that shows the detrimental effects of septic tanks and wastewater must also be addressed by officials that are charged with implementing environmental protection measures. This can be done through specific state abatement programs in order to ease the costs of connecting the region to sewer lines. Ultimately, reducing the effects of human waste is vital to preventing harmful algal blooms that currently affect the region.
In terms of regional water quality management, private land ownership in the region poses one of the biggest hurdles for the implementation and enforcement of agricultural best management practices (BMPs). AgReserves Inc., is a multinational agricultural for-profit and private company that owns nearly 383,000 acres in northwest Florida. After one of the largest private land sales in Florida history, their landownership spreads across Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty and Wakulla counties. Since the 2014 purchase, AgReserves, which presently operates one of the nation’s largest cow-calf operations at Deseret Cattle & Timber in Central Florida, has been steadily converting its Panhandle properties from timberland to pasture. Due to the large amount of pasture acreage, improperly managed pasture runoff has the potential to adversely affect the quality of surrounding waterways, such as St. Joseph Bay.
A group called “Baysavers” has taken on the initiative of generating public interest and funding for a potential water control structure to be placed on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to prevent the flow of freshwater and saltwater between Apalachicola Bay and St. Joseph Bay. Baysavers argues that the two water systems were naturally separated before industrial operations in the region required a shipping canal to connect St. Joseph Bay to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Since there is no longer a need for the infrastructure of the canal to support the passage of large ships, Baysavers is asking the United States Army Corps of Engineers to find a solution in order to protect the Bay from harmful regional impacts.
As a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and long-term water eutrophication problems, aquatic habitat in the Port St. Joe was adversely impacted. Many organisms such as seagrass, scallops, turtles, and various types of fish were threatened. But these creatures have a very important role in the ecosystem of port st joe. For example, the seagrass could provide nurseries, nutrition and shelter for a wide variety of commercial and recreational fish and invertebrate species, and their extensive root systems stabilize sediments on the bay bottom, helping to improve water quality and clarity.The detection of seagrass can introduce specific factors for short-term and long-term changes of near-shore aquatic ecosystems.
To effectively monitor the natural resources that affect the bay and to be able to document and determine the health of the bay system as well as accomplish the goal of this project, a variety of projects and efforts must be utilized and implemented. Since implementing agricultural BMPs is at the discretion of AgReserves, the city of Port St. Joe, Gulf County officials, and AgReserves should enter into a memorandum of agreement (MOA) to establish and maintain sound, responsible BMPs that foster agricultural land use and promote natural resource conservation. This MOA would allow all parties to agree on voluntary agricultural BMPs for AgReserves to adopt for their continued operations in the area. Prioritization of issues, objectives, and strategies can lead to a cohesive management program that, in the long-term, produce positive environmental results. Such BMPs can include co-locating renewable energy infrastructure—such as solar panels—on agricultural land.
Strategies that can be used to communicate, engage, and educate the public include partnering with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) to coordinate a citizen science initiative. Such an initiative can start to prioritize the discussion of environmentally friendly actions that can feasibly take place throughout the region to support the health of both the bay and the overall water systems that feed into it. Other methods of public awareness can include creating surveys or forums for citizens to learn more about their immediate environment. Through these public forums, citizens can provide locally driven perspectives and feedback as to what direction environmental policies should go in. A volunteer program may also be established to teach residents environmental best practices such as a rain garden workshop, spring break restoration projects, oyster gardening techniques, storm drain labeling, and using public service announcements, social media, and events to spread awareness throughout the community.