All About the Yellow, Blackwater, & Choctawhatchee Rivers

There are eight Coastal Plain rivers in Alabama (draining 25% of the state) that are not part of the Mobile Basin. Three of those eight rivers are the Blackwater, Choctawhatchee, and Yellow Rivers.  

The Blackwater River is 58 miles long and originates in Baldwin County near Loxley, AL and discharges into the Perdido River near Lilian, AL.  Only 9 miles of the river are within Alabama.

The Choctawhatchee River is 141 miles long and begins as two separate forks (East Fork and West Fork) near Clayton, AL. The two forks join near Ozark, AL in Dale County to form the Choctawhatchee River which then flows southeast for 48 miles to Geneva, AL before crossing the state line into Florida, ultimately emptying into the Choctawhatchee Bay. 

The Yellow River is 114 miles long and originates in southern Crenshaw County. The river flows south through Coffee and Covington Counties before exiting Alabama near Florala to join the Blackwater River and eventually reaches Blackwater Bay near Pensacola, FL. 

Map Credit: Sydney Zinner

The majority of the three rivers’ watersheds are forested, predominately in piney woods, followed by croplands and pasture. Pine plantations drive the local timber industry for lumber and pulpwood. Due to the relatively flat terrain in these Coastal Plain streams, the rivers have many lazy meanders and wide floodplains that flood on a frequent basis.

The rivers, along with many of their tributaries, are often called blackwater streams because of the dark tint derived from dissolved tannins that are leached from decaying vegetation in the surrounding area. These tannins also make the water mildly acidic and lower hardness levels. These slight differences in water chemistry can influence the types of plant and animals that live in and near the water.  

NOTABLE TRIBUTARIES AND PLACES

Pea River

The Pea River is a large tributary of the Choctawhatchee that is 153 miles long. Its name is translated from the Creek Indian word “Talakahatchee”. The Pea River rose 40 feet during the Lincoln Flood of 1865 (named for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln) which flooded the nearby town of Elba and seat of Coffee County. Elba is one of the most frequently flooded towns in Alabama, experiencing a major flood nearly every generation since the 1830’s.

Wiregrass Region

The Wiregrass region is an area of southeastern Alabama named for the native grass called wiregrass (Aristida stricta). The Wiregrass include nine Alabama counties: Barbour, Coffee, Covington, Crenshaw, Dale, Geneva, Henry, Houston, and Pike. Major Alabama cities in the area include Abbeville, Dothan, Ozark, Enterprise, Opp, and Luverne. The region also extends into southern Georgia and the Florida panhandle. Due to its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, the Wiregrass region’s summers are very humid while winters are mild. The area is susceptible to hurricanes and has suffered extensive damage in the past, most recently, with Hurricane Michael in 2018. In 2002, Troy University -Dothan Campus created The Wiregrass Archives to identify, preserve, and make available to researchers the records and papers of enduring value that document the history and development of the Wiregrass region of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.

The plant from which the Wiregrass region bears its name. Photo Credit: Rachel McGuire

Fort Rucker

During World War II, military installations drove growth in the Wiregrass region – namely, with Fort Rucker. Initially, the U.S. Army established the Napier Field pilot school close to Dothan as well as Camp Rucker between Ozark and Enterprise to train infantry. Camp Rucker also served as a POW complex and was officially renamed Fort Rucker in 1955. It is now the headquarters of the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence.

Photo Credit: Alabama Dept. of Archives & History Digital Collection

WILDLIFE

Due to its unimpeded nature, the Choctawhatchee River is a critical site for the spawning of the anadromous Gulf Sturgeon. The Choctawhatchee is also home to 21 freshwater mussel species and 21 freshwater snail species. One snail, the Graphite Elimia, is a species of special concern found only in the Choctawhatchee River Basin.

Reptiles and amphibians of interest in the Blackwater, Choctawhatchee, and Yellow River Basins include the Rainbow Snake, Chicken Turtle, Escambia Map Turtle, Eastern Tiger Salamander, Florida Bog Frog, Ornate Chorus Frog, and the Pine Barrens Tree Frog.

An Escambia Map Turtle (Graptemys ernsti). Photo Credit: Wesley Anderson

Read more about the stark differences between female and male Escambia Map Turtles in our Conecuh River Basin Blog.

A female Ornate Chorus Frog (Pseudacris ornata) Photo Credit: Alan Cressler

Ornate Chorus Frogs are small (between 1-1.5 inches) and vary greatly in color. Their skin can be gray, green, or reddish-brown color phases with a black stripe across their eye. Some individuals will have yellow markings on the groin with small yellow spots on the inside of the legs. These frogs can be found in a variety of habitats from grassy areas, wetlands, bogs, as well as xeric upland habitats such as sandhills and pine flatwoods. They are nocturnal and breed from November to March in shallow water. Their call is described as a sharp, metallic “tink”.

A few crayfish species of note in these Coastal Plain river basins are the rusty grave digger, Okaloosa crayfish, and lavender burrowing crayfish.

The American eel is a facultative, catadromous fish with a snakelike body between 20-60 inches long at maturity. They are bottom-dwellers that feed on worms, small fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. American eels die after spawning. They have a widespread range in eastern North America along the eastern Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast, well into inland rivers.

One aquatic inhabitant of these Coastal Plain river basins, the American eel, is especially interesting. It is a facultative, catadromous fish, meaning it migrates from saltwater to freshwater and back to saltwater during its life cycle. American eels begin their life as larvae in saltwater in the Sargasso Sea, then make a year-long migration to the Gulf Coast or Atlantic Coast. They then live in estuaries, marine, or tidal rivers for a few years. Some individuals then live in freshwater rivers for up to 40 years! After they reach sexual maturity, American eels make the great migration back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn, and subsequently die. Throughout this life cycle, the American eel undergoes profound physical changes and stages.

WATER QUALITY

Threats & Impairments 

On the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s 2020 303(d) List of Impaired Waters, the Pea, Yellow, and Blackwater Rivers have 20 waterbodies listed, totaling in 190 miles of streams and river reaches and 956 acres of reservoirs.  

Eight of these waterbodies were new 2020 listings, and five of the waterbodies have been listed for 10 or more years. 

Eight of the waterbodies are listed for metal impairment, specifically mercury, from atmospheric deposition. Two waterbodies are listed for organic enrichment, and 10 listed for pathogen impairment (E.coli). 

Sources of impairment include atmospheric deposition, animal feeding operations, pasture grazing, and collection system failure. 

AWW Data 

Since November 1994, 88 sites have been historically monitored on the Choctawhatchee River, yielding 3,571 total water chemistry records, 604 total bacteriological monitoring records, and 39 stream biomonitoring records since the first site in the river basins was sampled in 1994. Currently there are 31 active sites, meaning in 2021 they were monitored by volunteers. Most sites are monitored by long-time veteran monitor, Michael Mullen. 

Mike Mullen is the Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper, an Alabama Water Watch Association Board of Directors member, and a longtime AWW monitor. Photo Credit: Mike Mullen

The Blackwater River only has five bacteriological monitoring records collected in Feb 2020 by AWW as part of the USDA Forest Service CitSci Fund project.

Since September 1993, 63 sites have been historically monitored on the Pea-Yellow Rivers, yielding 3,801 total water chemistry records, 372 total bacteriological monitoring records, and 30 stream biomonitoring records since the first site in the river basins was sampled in 1993. Currently there are 30 active sites, meaning in 2021 they were monitored by volunteers.

Map Credit: AWW Online Database

Do you have photos or videos on the Blackwater, Choctawhatchee, or Yellow Rivers or any of their tributaries you would like to share with AWW? If so, upload your photo/video through this submission form.

Alabama Rivers Educator Workshop @ Cheaha State Park

In 2019, we facilitated several AL Rivers Educator Workshops, based on the book, Alabama Rivers: A Celebration & Challenge by Dr. Bill Deutsch, funded by the Alabama Bicentennial Commission.

Due to the high interest in the workshops, we were able to secure funding for more workshops and a second edition of the Educator’s Guide to Alabama Rivers curriculum from MidSouth RC&D. Unfortunately, the three workshops planned in 2020 had to be cancelled due to COVID. Needless to say, we were so excited to be back at it again with an Alabama Rivers Educator Workshop at Cheaha State Park on October 2!

Dr. Deutsch introduces the lesson, “Springs, Spirits, and Spas” prior to the afternoon hike.
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Educators Explore Pathogen Pollution in Our Waters

Project educators measure air temperature at the sampling site on Weeks Bay.

In 2019, 4-H Alabama Water Watch received funding through the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration’s Bays and Watershed Education Training Program (NOAA B-WET) to support the 4-H AWW Project, Exploring and Mitigating Pathogen Pollution in Our Waters.

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2021 Alabama Fish Consumption Advisories

Catfish Image credit: Shutterstock

Refer to the 2020 Alabama Fish Advisory blog for the basics of fish consumption advisories, including what they are and what they mean.

To view the entire list of advisories, access the publication from the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) here: https://www.alabamapublichealth.gov/tox/assets/al-fish-advisory-2021.pdf

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