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
Florida Springs Protection
If you are fortunate enough to have experienced any of our remarkable natural springs in Florida 20 years ago, then you know what we have allowed to happen. In Silver Springs alone, Florida’s largest and first major tourist attraction, the aquatic biomass has declined by nearly 92 percent. That means that for every 100 fish you previously saw beneath the glass bottom boats, today you will see only 8. In addition, over-pumping has resulted in a dramatic decline in water quality, clarity, and flow.
In 2012, the State mandated a 79 percent reduction in the nitrates currently going into Silver Springs and the Silver River. In the meantime, the St. Johns River Water Management Districts is planning to issue a permit for Adena Springs Ranch (aka Sleepy Creek Lands, Inc.), a massive cattle operation located in the watershed of the Silver and Ocklawaha Rivers and the springshed of Silver and Salt Springs. This project will require millions of gallons of water a day and produce tons of manure and nitrate pollution each year. “Silver Springs and the Silver River are already in serious de¬cline,” says Lisa Rinaman of St. Johns Riverkeeper. “How could we possibly allow such an intensive project that will only make the existing pollution and flow problems worse and restoration efforts more expensive and difficult for us to achieve? It defies logic and is certainly not in the public’s best interest.”
Deepening the St. Johns River
JAXPORT is looking to deepen the St. Johns River from 40 to 47 feet in order to attract larger container vessels. The deep dredge will cost local taxpayers nearly $400 million, close to $1,000 per household, and cause irreversible damage to our river. The overall cost of the project will most likely exceed $1 billion.
The Army Corps of Engineer conducted an Environmental Impact Statement to determine the impacts of deepening. Many experts and environmentalists believe the study is flawed and its conclusions underestimate the damage that will occur to the St. Johns and overestimate the potential economic benefits. The deeper we dig, the further salt water from the ocean will move upriver. The Army Corps says to expect only minimal impacts from the increased salinity, but their models indicate the exact same impact to wetlands and submerged grasses for each foot deeper we go, seemingly defying logic.
Why is a change in salinity a concern anyway? As salinity suddenly increases, trees and plants along the river that can’t adapt quickly will become stressed or die. Fish and wildlife lose habitat and the ecological balance is disrupted. Specifically, Julington Creek and the Ortega River will likely see a change in salinity and therefore potential die offs of wetlands, cypress, and other aquatic grasses.
Salinity aside, there are other impacts of deepening the St. Johns River. The dredging and the wake from larger ships can result in bank erosion and siltation along the shores of the protected Timucuan Preserve and for many property owners who live along sections of the river. More ships can mean more invasive species introduced from ballast water, an increase in air emissions from more trucks leaving the port and taking to our roads, and a reduction in the potential for recreation and tourism.
The proposal from Central Florida to remove up to 150 million gallons of water per day from the St. Johns River and Ocklawaha River in order to quench the thirst of a growing population is on the table. Called the Central Florida Water Initiative, water management officials are attempting to identify alternative sources of water for a population that is anticipated to increase by over 40 percent by 2035. With the knowledge that our springs are seeing dramatic declines in flow, lakes are drying up, and sinkholes are forming, water managers have turned their attention to the St. Johns and Ockla¬waha as potential freshwater sources to feed this growing demand.
Removing massive quantities of water from the middle basin will reduce the flow of the St. Johns, already known as one of the “laziest” rivers in the world. Reduced flow could lead to an increase saltwater intrusion from the ocean and higher concentrations of pollution, creating better conditions for toxic algae blooms.
While this issue plays out, water managers have failed to adequately address concerns from the citizens in North Florida; those that will feel the effects of the withdrawals the most. Most importantly, they aren’t focusing on water conservation strategies that could negate the need to withdraw water in the first place. Water managers have also failed to consider combined impacts from water withdraw¬als, declining spring flows, deepening the St. Johns, and more runoff and impacts from future growth.
Although the prospect of all of these things happening paints a gloomy picture of things to come, it doesn’t haveto be that way. We have a choice and the power to influence the future. We can sit idly by and allow the status quo to proceed, or we do our part to reduce our individual impact and demand that our elected officials and policymakers pursue more sustainable solutions.