The River: Its future and the role it plays in our city

April 13, 2015 0 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Many see the St. Johns River as the most significant natural resource in Northeast Florida and don’t understand why others don’t hold it with the same reverence. But to others, it’s just a big, dark body of water that flows conveniently through our fair city.

The St. Johns is termed a “black water river” because of its dark tea color. The color comes from the same tannins that give tea its color. Various tree species such as oak, gum and cypress shed their leaves into the swamps, wetlands and marshes at the head waters of the St. Johns. Just like making iced tea, the water gradually absorbs the tannins and becomes a slightly acidic, dark liquid. The water tastes sweet, hence the name “Sweet Water” for such dark rivers and streams.

Early explorers looked for the dark-colored water as a sign the water was safe to drink.  They would sail upstream, periodically tasting the water until it lost its saltiness and became “sweet.”Some people confuse the dark color with pollution, but tannin is a natural product. When we talk of “pollutants,” we are usually talking about chemicals or excessive nutrients introduced into the water.

Few people could have imagined the St. Johns River as it is today on that first day of May in 1562 when Jean Ribault first landed and named it the Riviere de Mai, or River of May. The shallow meandering river has changed dramatically over the 450 years since its discovery.

And it is the combination of salt and fresh water that adds to the uniqueness of the St. Johns River. The St. Johns River flows north from the mid-Florida sand ridge with a height of less than 30 feet. So the St. Johns River only drops or falls about 30 feet over its entire 310 mile length.

That makes it a very slow moving river. Most residents of Jacksonville seem to know that the early name was Cowford. For it was in the Jacksonville area that cows would cross (ford) the river. The cattle could not walk across but only had to swim a short distance in the slow moving river to reach the other side. Early maps show a shallow river where depths less than 12 to 14 feet were common. It was certainly nothing approaching the 40-foot dredged channel of what is now the modern St. Johns River.

We have used and abused the river for decades. We have taken advantage of the river’s ability to rebound and recover from the excess pollution and dredging that has occurred. But dredge we must if we want ships to use Jacksonville as a port. So we dredged and Jacksonville became an important port in the southeast US. Now we debate if we need to continue to dredge in order to get the ever larger ships to dock in Jacksonville. Just what role the river will play in the future of Jacksonville remains to be seen.

TEDxJacksonville's next salon is on April 18, 2015 at Jacksonville University


Op-Ed by:

Quinton White, Jr., Ph.D., is Executive Director, Marine Science Research Institute and Professor of Biology and Marine Science at Jacksonville University. Dr. White joined the faculty at Jacksonville University in 1976, having completed his Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina at the Baruch Institute for Marine Biology and Coastal Research. Dr. White has written numerous research and technical papers or reports and received grants and contracts to support marine research at JU. Currently he is conducting research on the history of human impact on the Florida environment and especially on the St. Johns River with a focus on manatees and water quality issues. Dr. White served as Chair of the JCCI study on Energy, Environment and the Economy. He chaired the JU Campus Sustainability Committee that developed policy recommendations to make JU a sustainable campus. The Marine Science Research Institute building opened in 2010 and is the first LEED certified Gold building on the JU campus. He was a founding member of the St. Johns Riverkeeper and has studied the St. Johns River for over thirty five years. Dr. White is a member of the City of Jacksonville Mayor’s Task Force of Harbor Deepening.