Grassroots group wants federal designation of estuary for Perdido, Pensacola bays

By Allison Marlow
Managing Editor
Posted 3/23/23

When European explorers stumbled upon Perdido Bay, it was an enigma.As the winds changed and storms came and went, the sands at the bay's entrance moved making it difficult, sometimes impossible, for …

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Grassroots group wants federal designation of estuary for Perdido, Pensacola bays


When European explorers stumbled upon Perdido Bay, it was an enigma.

As the winds changed and storms came and went, the sands at the bay's entrance moved making it difficult, sometimes impossible, for ships to enter.

It was given the Spanish name Perdido, meaning lost.

Today, a group of volunteers anxiously wait on the passage of federal legislation, decades in the making, that not only mark Perdido Bay prominently on the map but will also make it the first new national estuary program in the United States in nearly 30 years.

The designation would bring sustainable funds to the region for outreach and restoration, making it a priority investment area for federal and state dollars.

"That's really important when you are talking about habitat restoration, coastal resilience and other programs. All of that costs a lot," said Matt Posner, executive director of Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program. "Securing this designation would help capitalize on what are truly legacy investments."


On maps stretching back to the 1700s, Perdido Bay isn't always marked. It's shifting sands often kept people and ships away.

Inside, the natural world thrived. Like its neighboring estuaries in Mobile and Pensacola bays, fresh water flows in at the head of the bay from the Perdido River while salt water flows into the bay's mouth from the Gulf of Mexico.

Now that Perdido Pass is regularly dredged and the entrance is clear, the mix of salt and fresh has stabilized and is stratified like the waters in Mobile and Pensacola bays. The surface is relatively fresh and deeper waters remain salty.

While recreational boating is popular in the bay's most southern regions, it's northern reaches are less regularly explored.

Above Lillian, public access is limited. Those with boats are kayaks can float past flourishing forests where dolphins and manatees play and Gulf sturgeon, a threatened species, lives.

In the 1950s, a grass-roots organization rallied to advocate for better water quality in the bay and to urge a paper company there to stop directly discharging waste into 11 Mile Creek in Pensacola, which led to the bay.

In 2017, that discharge was re-routed through a wetland system that helped to reduce the waste and lessen the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in the bay's upper regions.

Haley Gancel, an environmental scientist with the Pensacola & Perdido Bays Estuary Program, said strides have been made to improve the water quality but continued monitoring is not only needed, it's necessary.

"We definitely need monitoring and water samples within Perdido Bay to tell the full story to see how much of the bay is being cleaned up," Gancel said. "We don't want to say it's completely safe. Progress has been made but you always need to keep an eye on things. It's the same in Mobile and Pensacola."


The work to preserve Perdido Bay began nearly 40 years ago.

A grassroots organization known as the Bay Area Resource Council gathered stakeholders from local, state and federal agencies, neighbors and academia.

Posner said the group had all the right resources but none of the funding needed to carry out the mission.

After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010, those organizers seized the opportunity to use what they knew would be substantial penalties and use those dollars to improve the long-term legacy of the bays.

In 2017, the group received funds from the EPA to stand up the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program. At that point, the group expanded to include the City of Orange Beach in Alabama among its stakeholders.

This past October, the board adopted its first ever comprehensive conservation management plan, setting forth a roadmap for restoration and preservation of the Perdido Bay and Pensacola Bay systems for the next five to 10 years. Much of that plan covers water quality improvement, coastal resilience and educational outreach.

Last month, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both of Florida, introduced Senate Bill 50, which would designate Perdido and Pensacola bays as an estuary of national significance, only the 29th in the nation and the first area so named in nearly 30 years.

In a press conference this month, U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama said he had not heard of the legislation.

Posner said no new estuary programs have been created recently because often the federal government considers how much has been done locally to preserve the area.

"Often what they are looking for is to show skin in the game from local and state agencies," Posner said. "They want to know there is support there both from professional involvement and also from a financial resource perspective.

"But also knowing that the community is behind it and wants to see that work implemented and succeed. I would say the EPA is not interested in just paying to have another plan written and not implemented," Posner said.

"The reason these national programs around the country have been so successful is they do a good job of bringing people together and leveraging resources."


Even with funding and a national title, the estuary program's staff of seven can't be everywhere. The group works closely with the City of Orange Beach, officials in Okaloosa County, Florida, and everywhere in between, Posner said.

"The whole purpose is really to have a two-state collaborative effort, coming together to identify these common needs and set a course of action that will ultimately benefit both states and at end of day our water resources in our communities," Posner said.

The biggest challenge, he said, is that environmental management requires work within the rules of each of the various jurisdictions the bays stretch across. Organizers at a federally recognized estuary could help bridge those gaps.

"The benefit is that when you have programs that have an overarching view it's easier to tackle long-term problems," he said.

For the estuary program that means working extensively with the Dauphin Island Sea Lab on mapping seagrass and monitoring plankton in the bays. The group has dabbled in researching the history of oysters there and assessing whether the creatures could survive in those waters.

"Projects like that, we are really homing in on getting data for future restoration," Posner said. "We don't just go out and throw things in the water and hope for the best."

A lot of what the group does is simply data gap filing. The estuary program has been working with the EPA to essentially take a snapshot in time of the region that measures water quality, toxicity and other data. The organization expects to release a state of the bay report in May that gives a complete picture of the health of the water and the animals and plants that live in or near it.

Posner said the report will give scientists a baseline to assess progress and help with planning.

As the estuary program reaches out to more communities Posner said he has seen a shift in attitudes towards preserving the bay amid fevered construction and build up along the coast.

"We want to continue to grow and develop and that can absolutely happen and should happen but there are steps that need to be taken to make sure we are also preserving a way of life many of us grew up with and to continue that for the next generation," Posner said. "It's the same conversation whether we're in Orange Beach or Pensacola. Everybody feels the same way.

"Everybody is seeing the real value that our natural resources play in terms of the success of our communities," Posner said. "I've been doing this work for 10 years and the level of support in conversation that happens around water quality and habitat restoration wasn't there 10 years ago. It is now really great to see.

"I'm pretty hopeful and excited to see what the next five to 10 years look like," he said.