The St. Johns River at MOSH

December 8, 2012 0 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In the permanent Water World exhibit, MOSH divulges history about the St. Johns River, introduces audience members to some of its inhabitants and tells how to keep it clean.

The St. Johns River is an essential component to Northeast Florida.  It’s one of the area’s natural resources with some of the most environmental and cultural importance, and is a monumental developer in Florida’s history.  However, the health of the river has been significantly compromised over the years.  In 2008, American Rivers included the St. Johns River in its list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers due to its many threats.  The Water Worlds exhibit at MOSH looks into the large, flowing body of water’s history, the largest reasons for its destruction, and ways to nurse it back to health to help retrieve the beauty of it in the eyes of the humans who utilize its resources every day.

The St. Johns became recognized as “America’s First River,” because it was the first river to be explored by Europeans in the New World.  Before European contact, Native Americans set up home near the river and used it for food and protection.  Evidence of their life by the water is left behind through disregarded oyster shells and other bits of nature that have formed into large mounds known as middens.  These are visible from many of the river’s surrounding parks and public areas.

The Water Worlds exhibit at MOSH

Following its New World discovery, the river became a “highway” into Florida.  In 1562, French Huguenot explorer Jean Ribault dubbed it the “River of May.”  A few years later, the Spanish renamed it the “St. Matthews River,” following their capture of Fort Caroline.

In 1763, the British took over East Florida and lined the river with agriculture and plants.  This permanently altered the river, as they cleared vital forests and wetlands over the course of 21 years.  By the 1800s, the river was often used for transportation of US troops and supplies during the Seminal Indian Wars and the Civil War.  In 1864, a transporting steamship called the Maple Leaf collided into a torpedo and sunk to the bottom of the river.

aerial views of the St. Johns River displayed at MOSH

For many years following, the river’s main purpose remained for transportation until the 1920s.  This gained a substantial amount of tourism for those seeking warmer weather, which called for a more sophisticated flow of travel to Florida.  Henry Flagler expanded a railroad into Florida, and the river’s use as a highway came to an end.

After it was no longer regarded as necessary for travel, the river’s natural importance was overlooked.  Businessmen and speculators of the 1900s converted more than 70 percent of the river’s headwaters to agriculture and urban lands. Communities and businessmen also used it as a place to dump wastewater and sewage.  Thankfully, the body of water is not blatantly mistreated this way today, but its health needs significant improvement.  Part of MOSH’s Water World exhibit reveals five main threats to the river.

Nutrient overload caused by wastewater treatment plants, industrial charges, storm water runoff and fertilizers lead to an overabundance of algae blooms that deplete the oxygen necessary for fish to survive.  The overload reduces light for submerged vegetation, and in addition to threatening aquatic life; it is dangerous to humans as well.

Hazardous levels of fecal coliform accumulate from failing septic tanks, wastewater treatment plants, broken sewer lines and animal waste.  In 2011, Jacksonville was among the 10 cities in America with the worst drinking water, and 50 streams are currently regarded as “impaired” because of elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria.

Sedimentation, caused by particulate matter – such as soil – that washes off construction sites and flow into waterways, disrupts the food chain by burying aquatic life.  Additionally, it hinders recreational activities such as boating.

Extra pressure for growth and development results in the destruction of aquatic and terrestrial habitats, which seriously reduces life forms and biological productivity.

A lot of times, construction projects still eliminate wetlands.  Water quality, increased erosion, reduced storm water retention, habitat destruction and elimination of nutrients critical to the river’s ecosystem are just some consequences from this.

Fortunately, MOSH also illustrates ways for humans to solve these dilemmas, including conserving water and creating a river-friendly yard.  Simply fixing leaks and renovating plumbing fixtures can save a family of four 30,000 gallons of water a year, and watering lawns no more than twice a week during early hours is also an easy way to save.

Additionally, wetlands can be protected by considering where to build new homes and businesses, and by harvesting pine bark or leaves instead of cypress mulch.

Aquarium with some of the common fish living in the St. Johns River

There are also more hands-on approaches one can take to get involved, like volunteering for a River Cleanup Day with the St. Johns Riverkeeper.  MOSH also advises people to voice their care of the river to elected officials in order to create stronger conservation laws.  Not polluting is a no-brainer, but reporting pollution to the Riverkeeper can help decrease the amount of waste tossed out by others.

To meet some of the St. Johns River’s residents, find out where to explore, learn more of its history or gather general information, visit the permanent Water Worlds exhibit at MOSH.

article by Melanie Pagan
information obtained through MOSH