Asking 50 different scientists working on the St. Johns River “What is the state of the St. Johns?” will undoubtedly lead to 50 different answers. The St. Johns River is the longest river in Florida, flowing north for 310 miles, traversing three distinct basins, and draining nearly 9,000 square miles. Each basin spans almost 100 miles in length, and each has its own unique characteristics and set of problems. Report by SHANNON BLANKINSHIP, Director for St. Johns Riverkeeper
photo by carol bailey white
The Upper Basin
The St. Johns begins in a vast marsh similar to the Everglades. In fact, the point at which the two are divided took scientists well into the 20th century to determine. Many of the same problems associated with the Everglades affect the St. Johns: dykes and levees starve marshlands of water flow for agriculture, pesticides and fertilizers run off into waterways, and manure from grazing livestock adds additional nutrients at an alarming rate to the river.
Similar to the Everglades though, attention has been given to protecting conservation lands in our upper basin. Thousands of acres are preserved specifically for water quality, dykes are being removed, and natural flow is being restored. Still, encroaching development, agriculture, and alterations to the flow of water plague the headwaters of the St. Johns, creating additional impacts to our river’s health downstream.
The Middle Basin
The middle basin is dramatically different from the upper, looking more like a pearl necklace than a marsh. Here, massive lakes like Lake Jessup, Harney, George, Monroe, Hell n’ Blazes and Puzzle Lake are connected through narrow channels of river, as narrow as the unassuming tributaries that enter the river in this section. The major tributaries that contribute flow to our river in this stretch are largely spring-fed and include the Wekiva, Econlockhatchee, and the Ocklawaha. With each entry, the issues affecting these rivers add to the problems facing the St. Johns.
Rodman Dam, which prevents free flow from Silver Springs into the Ocklawaha River, also retains toxic sediment buildup and pollution that settles on the artificial lake floor behind the dam. Periodic water and sediment releases by the Army Corps of Engineers puts pollution in the river, causing fish kills and discoloration for days. The Econlockhatchee flows through much of the sprawling development in Orlando, picking up stormwater and sediment on its journey. Most dramatically, the springs that contribute an estimated 20–30 percent of the freshwater flow in the St. Johns River have declined in magnitude by as much as 50 percent and nitrates have increased dramatically. This has resulted in
algal growth, poor water quality, reduced clarity and less habitat for endemic fish and wildlife. Lacking adequate protection for our springsheds, the land that drains into our springs, has left the water flowing from the springs a greenish tinge. This is largely due to artificial green lawns and the water and fertilizer used to grow them.
The Lower Basin
Flowing from Welaka to the mouth of the St. Johns at Mayport, the river again takes a dramatic change. The lower basin is wide and slow, majestic and blue from afar but brown and turbid up close. Those of us living in this section have the disadvantage of receiving all of the pollution from upstream combined with the impacts associated with a dense population.
In the Lower Basin, our threats are not foreign. Each year since 2005, scientists from Jacksonville University and University of North Florida collaborate to produce “The State of the River Report for the Lower St. Johns”. The report describes the health of the river on a number of health indicators, with each receiving either a Thumbs Up, for meeting minimum state and federal standards, or a Thumbs Down. In addition, the report tracks trends and whether or not conditions are improving, worsening, or remain unchanged.
Having a report of this kind is critical to understanding the threats to our river’s health. It also provides a critical tool for policy makers to then develop and implement solutions and evaluate prog¬ress. To access the brochure or the full report, visit www.sjrreport.com. While it is essential that we evaluate the health status of the river, it is more important to look at what we’re doing to resolve the problems.
The threats facing the St. Johns are not in our distant past. Unfortunately, no major funding is underway to repair or replace over 20,000 failing septic tanks located in Duval County that are leaking into our river. We still haven’t decided to take enforcement seriously on outdoor irrigation or proper fertilizer use. The water management district continues to issue permits and allow the over-pump¬ing of our aquifer. At the same time, growth and development are ramping up again. This means that more fragile wetlands may be destroyed, more polluted stormwater will flow to our river, and more people will require more water and generate more pollution, creating more challenges and potential threats. Unfortunately, many state legislators are focused on gutting environmental protections and eliminating growth management requirements.