If you have driven down Bayfront Parkway in downtown Pensacola over the last few weeks, you have likely noticed something new going on in the bay. Large “islands” of sand, planted with thin green grasses, dot the seascape just beyond the shore. For those who have lived in the area for a while, you will likely recognize this effort as part of an ongoing ecological makeover called Project Greenshores. Begun in the early 2000’s and now in Phase III, the effort—led by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection—has involved community partners as varied as Gulf Power, NAS Pensacola, Escambia County, the City of Pensacola, the National Wildlife Federation, private businesses, students, and Scout troops.
The endeavor began as a demonstration project to provide oyster and marsh habitat and show how a living shoreline could help protect vulnerable infrastructure. It has succeeded not only in this goal but many others. So many birds have been attracted to the new structure that it was added to the Great Florida Birding Trail, with at least 50 species identified. I conducted my master’s thesis research on this project, and within two years of the oyster reefs’ construction, I found statistically significant increases in both species richness and abundance of fish and invertebrate populations in and along the reefs and vegetation.
The basic plans for each site are essentially a living shoreline writ large. Each section has a large rock and shell breakwater to slow down incoming waves. These reefs calm the water, allowing the imported sand to stay in place. Protected from the waves, the intertidal islands slowly transformed into functioning salt marshes. They were all planted initially with only smooth cordgrass. As roots stabilized the sand and started building up marsh, additional species took root, arriving via natural recruitment from existing seed bank. Phase I, although partially impacted from bridge construction, is a diverse system with oyster reefs, seagrass beds, low marsh, high marsh, mature woody shrubs and trees, and small inlets cutting throughout. Kayaking and fishing throughout the area are excellent.
Phase II, added in 2007, is located immediately west of Muscogee Wharf. It has a lower breakwater profile and the marsh is not as extensive. While the original plans called for at least 3 phases, funding slowed down until recently, when oil spill/RESTORE funds were made available. Construction of Phase III has commenced in the last couple of months, extending the new estuarine habitat along Bayfront Parkway beyond Hawkshaw Lagoon and to the west.
While not designed as stormwater treatment, several large stormwater pipes empty directly into the bay adjacent to Project Greenshores. These pipes drain large swaths of the city. Significant efforts have gone into retrofitting stormwater vaults to treat water before entering the bay, but pollution inevitably reaches the water without pre-treatment. When sediment, nutrients, and oils/greases flow into the bay, the vegetative material within Project Greenshores can take up and process some of these nutrients, improving water quality.
Project Greenshores has attracted visitors and interested scientists from all over the world. At 15 acres, it is one of the largest marsh habitat creation projects in existence, and has withstood dozens of tropical storms and direct hits from Hurricane Ivan (2004) and Sally (2020).