Formed by the confluence of its east and west forks in Dale county near Newton in Southeast Alabama, the Choctawhatchee River flows generally southward for 138 miles to empty into Choctawhatchee Bay in Florida. Its forks begin near the town of Clayton in Barbour County. Its eastern fork, described as swampy, is characterized by water willow, over cup oak, and bald cypress draped with Spanish moss. This fork is virtually inaccessible by boat. The west fork runs through soapstone bluffs and offers sections of whitewater for recreational boaters. After the convergence of these forks the river takes on the character of a coastal waterway. (Wills)
The watershed encompasses approximately 4,748 square miles. The majority of the basin, about 66% (or 3,400 square miles), lies in Alabama with the remaining 34% (or 1,348 square miles) occurring in Florida. About 50 miles of the mainstem are in Alabama. The system terminates into Choctawhatchee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico and encompasses freshwater and brackish, estuarine and marine habitats. (Corps)
The Alabama portion of the watershed includes 2 million acres and portions of ten southeast Alabama counties. These counties are Barbour, Bullock, Coffee, Covington, Crenshaw, Dale, Geneva, Henry, Houston, and Pike. The Florida portion of the watershed flows through 4 counties (Bay, Holmes, Jackson, and Walton) and occupies approximately 1 million acres. (CPRWMA-plan)
The Choctawhatchee crosses the Alabama/Florida state line just south of the city of Geneva, AL where the rivers largest tributary, the Pea River converges.
The entire watershed lies within the physiographic region of the East Gulf Coastal Plain Province which drains about 25% of the state. The topography is generally rolling to nearly level with well drained sandy soils. Stream bottoms consist of poorly drained soils. Elevations in the relatively high, hilly terrain of the upper basin range up to about 600 feet above mean sea level. Sedimentary deposits of silt, sand and clay make up the underlying rock to a depth of 2,500 feet where a base of crystalline rock continues to 4,000 feet.
Rock units comprising aquifers are approximately 70 million years old in the northern portion with rock layers sloping downward to 50 million years old in the southern portion. (Corps) They consist of sand or limestone. Lime accumulation began with the ancient fossilized remains of marine organisms on top of sedimentary deposits. These sediments then sit on top of a base of deep crystalline rock. (NRCS appendix)
Average rainfall is 52 inches annually in the upper basin and 62 inches in the lower portion. (Corps)
Well-drained bluffs in the region consist of a beech-magnolia forest and also include Laurel Oak, Basswood, Florida Maple and American Holly. These stands contain more species of trees than any other forest type in the temperate North America, including a southern relative of the White Pine called Spruce Pine. (Wills)
The northern part of the basin is primarily dominated by the Sand Hills (very susceptible to erosion), interspersed with Clay Hills habitats. The Red Hills and bog and swamp habitats are less prevalent.
Clayhill uplands during pre-Columbian times are estimated to have contained 70 million acres of longleaf or yellow pine with fairly open canopies allowing for rich groundcover flora. Occasional fires were important to maintaining this habitat. Today, the remaining stands of longleaf are less than 60 years old, and summer fires are practically non-existent due to intervention by man. Fauna includes red tailed hawk, great horned owl, fox squirrel, eastern diamond back rattlesnake, pine snake, gopher tortoise, Bachman’s sparrow and bobwhite. (Corps)
The Sandhill uplands are similar to the Clayhills but contain more small oaks in the understory such as turkey, blackjack and bluejack oak, and near the coast, live oaks. Groundcover is dominated by wiregrass and bracken fern. The sandhills are more fire prone. Fauna includes red-tail skink, gopher frog, and the pocket gopher. The gopher tortoise (Federally threatened) is considered “the most important grazing animal in the pineland forests” because of the dependence of almost 40 species who use their burrows as homes. The indigo snake and gopher frog are examples of at risk species, their fates determinate upon the survival of the gopher tortoise. Other vertebrates in the sandhills include the spadefoot toad, eastern tiger salamander, southern fence lizard, fox squirrel, old field mouse, cotton mouse, and several species of shrew and moles.
The lower Choctawhatchee supports pitcher plant bogs and bay swamp habitats. Oxbow lakes (which are small lakes formed by abandoned river channels) contain spanish moss draped cypress trees and alligators. (Wills) For a full description of all these habitats see ’92 Corps of Engineers Report or Wills.
Elevated slopes of the Choctawhatchee-Pea are characterized by a sweetgum-water oak-loblolly pine association. (Corps)