Locals have recently seen a drop in activity of the Coastal Dune Lakes of Walton County.

These unique geographic footprints exist in only four other places besides our backyard, including Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand and Oregon. After residents claimed fish, birds and vegetation were dwindling, the Walton County Environmental Department decided to conduct assessments of the 15 local lakes.

Since there are no reference-based systems to observe, studying the lakes is difficult.

To get accurate readings, the department measured the lakes' chemical and nutrient levels, along with dividing them into freshwater and marine-influenced categories.

“There are lots of things the average person can do to help the Coastal Dune Lakes,” said Melinda Gates, Walton County's Coastal Resource Liaison. “Volunteers are always needed by the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance for their LakeWatch program for water quality sampling. To help with water quality of the lakes, property owners surrounding the lakes can reduce their fertilizer usage and make sure that they are not clearing the vegetation within the first 100 feet of the lake.”

Also, the quality and quantity of these shallow but permanent bodies of water fluctuates because of their connection to the Gulf of Mexico, and they're home to both saltwater and freshwater species. Surrounding vegetation is responsible for controlling water quality and erosion.

Gates said the Environmental Department found that most of the lakes were doing well, apart from a few that had higher than normal nutrient levels. She said this could be because of fertilizers, storm water runoff and a lack of vegetation surrounding the lakes.

Louis Svehla, Walton County's public information manager, said Walton officials realize how unique the dune lakes are and are working to preserve them.

“They truly separate us from almost every other coastal community and provide us with an environmental gem that we are dedicated to protecting for future generations,” Svehla said.