For such a hippie-looking character, Matanzas Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon has walked quite a straight and narrow path, career-wise. Since turning 18, Armingeon has worked to protect waterways in the Southeastern United States. This is what the man does. Every single day.
Now serving his fourth body of water, the Matanzas River, which heads south through St. Johns County from the St. Augustine Inlet and ends, as he puts it, unceremoniously in Flagler County, where it splits into tiny tributaries, Armingeon professes his love and dedication to the river as if he were trying to woo it. In many ways, he is still working to earn the affection of the river that gently meanders along outside the window of his office in Crescent Beach, on the grounds of Genung’s (pronounced je-NUNGS) Fish Camp.
I met Armingeon just outside this single-room wooden structure on a breezy Wednesday afternoon in February. The placid, park-like grounds on the bed of the Matanzas River are a perfect perch for the long-haired, earring-sporting environmentalist. Armingeon greeted me with a smile and as we toured the compound, he stopped and pointed to a one-inch line drawn in black Sharpie on the doorjamb of the fish camp. The stripe, a respectable four feet off the ground, was the high-water mark of the river during Hurricane Matthew.
“None of this should even be here right now,” Armingeon says in a thick, syrupy Alabama drawl that he either can’t or doesn’t want to shake. Over the last few months, many hands put in countless hours to get Genung’s Fish Camp and the office it leases to the Matanzas Riverkeeper organization looking like the bucolic bluff it appears to be on the cloudy afternoon.
Four months after Hurricane Matthew ravaged the region, there is still much more work to do. But there’s always more work to do. For Armingeon, more-work-to-do has been the story of his life, one spent dedicated to clean water.
GET MEAN OR GET OUT!
Armingeon is Tuscaloosa-born-and-bred. His father, Carl Armingeon, owned a menswear store and, as the only son, his progeny was expected to take over the family business. Armingeon spent three years at the University of Alabama studying business, but it didn’t stick, so he abandoned his course before the start of his final year.
To make sure Carl didn’t raise holy hell, Armingeon immediately went job-hunting and landed at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), a data-collecting entity of the federal government. It was a friend-of-a-friend kind of thing, but it paid well enough and it was a government job in the economically unsteady early 1980s, when a government job meant security and placated parents.
“My interview consisted of two questions: ‘Can you swim? Are you afraid of heights?’ I answered ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and that was it. Just like that, I became a fancy-ass hydrologic technician,” Armingeon recalls.
The gig consisted of measuring and recording gauge readings from water resources in the Southeastern United States, or as Armingeon says, “documenting the decline of the water resources in the Southeast.”
“I’d spend weeks, months really, on the road, where my only conversations were with the motel attendants,” Armingeon says.
He recalls that his first time in Jacksonville on the St. Johns River, he was finally accompanied by a colleague; as they floated underneath the Main Street Bridge in an undersized dingy, the tide shifted and the St. Johns River said a hearty ‘hello’ to Armingeon for the first time.
“I thought we were going to sink into that goddam river that day,” Armingeon muses ironically. Little did he know that the St. Johns River would become the focus of his career for the better part of a decade.
In 1984, the Jacksonville USGS post became permanent, but it also became stagnant, offering little career growth opportunity. He meandered in and out of what he refers to as “Surfer College” (Florida State College of Jacksonville, then FCCJ, for those who remember the old acronym), but after a few years of that, he was antsy.
While in Jacksonville, he befriended a woman who would have a profound impact on setting his life course. That woman, MaVynee Betsch, aka The Beach Lady, asked him for a ride home from an environmental awareness rally one day and, en route, asked what he did for a living.
“I told her that I worked for the USGS and she said, ‘Honey, you don’t want to work for the government. You want to work for nature,’ and just like that, a light seemed to click on,” Armingeon remembers.
He left life and love behind and enrolled in North Carolina State University, where, out of 18,000 students, he was one of two majoring in botany. He followed that up with a master’s degree in the same field from Duke University. And just like that, Armingeon was pedigreed and ready to fight for water.
He landed the position of Environmental Director at the North Carolina Coastal Federation, where his first assignment was to drive to Raleigh and address a state legislative committee. It was his second week on the job and he looked every bit as green as he felt in his ill-fitting suit.
He was sent alongside the woman who would serve to solidify Armingeon’s life course.
“Lina Ritter was, in every sense of the word, a firecracker. A fearless, roughhewn woman who would get in anybody’s face,” Armingeon says.
Halfway to Raleigh, Ritter pulled her Plymouth K car over, exhaled a plume of cigarette smoke and forcefully told Armingeon to get out of the car.
“I thought she was crazy. Here we were on Highway 70 in the middle of nowhere and she yelling at me to get out of the car,” Armingeon says.
“She told me, ‘You gotta make up your mind right now, choir boy. You are either going to get mean or get out. Those people we’re going to talk to are not good people and they will eat you alive. You gotta make a choice,’ she said, and I did, and we hauled ass on to Raleigh.”
After two years at the N.C. Coastal Federation and a slew of confrontational run-ins with would-be polluters alongside Ritter, an opportunity opened up in New Orleans, a city Armingeon had loved as a kid. He was Big Easy bound.
In New Orleans, Armingeon found a home at the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF). He arrived in 1992 just as Hurricane Andrew had annihilated Miami and was bearing down on New Orleans right in time for the organization’s annual fundraiser. It was not the start he expected, but the storm eventually deviated, the LPBF was able to go forward with the event, which yielded a record-breaking haul, enough for the organization to set a precedent of exceptional fundraising and environmental protection for years.
“The 11 years I spent on Lake Pontchartrain were great. We did a lot of good work and preserved thousands of acres of land around the lake,” Armingeon says.
“The organization grew and became a bit bureaucratic, as is the case in this business. Also, as is the case in this business, people start to anticipate what you’re going to say and start to tune you out after a while.”
Meanwhile, Jacksonville was calling again through a rekindled flame that he was never quite able to extinguish. So, as love would have one do, in 2003 he quit his job and headed to the River City, believing that everything would work itself out. And it did. He and Nan Jobson married shortly after he arrived. To this day, he still calls her the most patient woman in the world.
At the time, the St. Johns Riverkeeper organization needed a riverkeeper. Armingeon applied; at the interview he asked a simple question, “Who are your enemies?” When a reply of ‘no one’ was offered, Armingeon said, “Well, give me two years and you’ll have enemies.”
He got the gig and arrived to a similar fiscal disaster as he had in his previous job.
“It was February and at the first board meeting, the treasurer stands up and says, ‘At this current burn rate, we’ll be out of cash by July.’ I went home and told my soon-to-be wife, ‘Well, we at least have until summer,” Armingeon says. The organization, though, would stabilize, enabling Armingeon to make good on the promise he made in his interview.
In 2004, Armingeon received a call from a fisherman in Ortega complaining about condoms and tampons spewing out of a pipe into one of the tributaries of the St. Johns. He asked a friend to take him and St. Johns Riverkeeper Executive Director Jimmy Orth there by boat and drop them off in a canoe so they could explore the complaint. As they paddled up, the disgusting truth was revealed: a JEA discharge pipe had burst.
Armingeon and Orth immediately called the media and when the reporters asked the name of the creek, Orth cracked a joke; the name “Condom Creek” would stick and precipitate activity and mobilization against JEA which had never been seen before.
“JEA was untouchable at that time, but we weren’t going to let this slide. We sued JEA,” Armingeon says. JEA eventually settled and fixed the pipe. The Condom Creek fiasco and resolution would give the St. Johns Riverkeeper organization a reputation of action and effectiveness.
Armingeon spent more than a decade watching over the river and retaining a high position on certain folks’ shitlists. There are stories of him storming out of meetings to drive a point home and of being called derogatory names by people in position of power and influence.
“The job is not to make enemies, but people will get upset when you are doing what’s right,” Armingeon says.
“Ultimately, as I’ve said before, in this business your message will eventually fall on deaf ears because people get used to hearing the same thing from you. I had been saying the same things about the St. Johns River, but it was because some things weren’t fucking changing. It’s then that you realize that it’s time to move on.”
Lisa Rinaman, the current St. Johns Riverkeeper, recalls Armingeon as being a straight-shooter. Prior to replacing him, Rinaman worked for the local government, and while not ever directly opposing Armingeon, she did sit on the other side of the table many times.
“Neil has the ability to be stringent when he needs to be. I have a great deal of respect for him,” Rinaman says. “The best advice he gave me when I replaced him was to simply do what’s best for the river.”
THE POSSIBILITY OF MADNESS
In 2012, Armingeon was driving on the Francis & Mary Usina Bridge, commonly known as the Vilano Bridge, and looked out over the Matanzas. It captured his imagination; a year later he would formally take the oath as the Matanzas Riverkeeper.
The organization sits under the umbrella of the Friends of the Matanzas, a nonprofit organization that incubated the Matanzas Riverkeeper. Alongside local brothers Pat and Bill Hamilton, Armingeon submitted the application to Waterkeeper Alliance, the New York-based international organization started by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., which standardizes waterkeepers around the world through licensure.
This was Armingeon’s first time in all the years he’d spent working to protect waterways that he started an effort from scratch. He had to learn the waterway, which Armingeon says is vital to protecting it, and he had to learn how to use QuickBooks, the entry-level accounting software.
“[My father] Carl would be rolling in his grave if he saw how little I actually knew about running the business side of things,” Armingeon laughs.
“But I learned about it and know exactly what’s in the organization’s bank account.” The newfound responsibilities of being a one-man office invigorated Armingeon. His history of activism in St. Johns County also helped get the organization off the ground.
Adam Morley, a local captain making his living off the Matanzas River as the environmental educator for St. Augustine Eco Tours, was happy to have a heavyweight in the river’s corner.
“I knew about Neil from his time as the St. Johns Riverkeeper and what you see is what you get from him,” Morley says.
“We’ve been great resources for each other and what I like about Neil is his on-going persistence, because developers also have an ongoing, profit-driven persistence and if you let up on them (developers) on water consumption or pollution, it will come back to bite us.”
It has been win-some/lose-some against the developers in St. Johns County. A coalition of activist and organizations, including the Matanzas Riverkeeper, was able to temporarily halt King’s Grant, a 1,000-home development aimed at the headwaters of Pellicer Creek, a region of the Matanzas watershed that serves as a recharge area for the aquifer. Pellicer Creek is one of the last bodies of water designated as Outstanding Florida Waters by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).
On the other side of the coin, Lakewood Pointe, a housing development aiming to put 36 single-family homes on Moses Creek, received permission to increase the number of homes to 78, in spite of opposition from environmentalists. For Armingeon, the population boom of St. Johns County is not the issue.
“We’re not anti-growth or anti-development, but folks have to understand that building new homes doesn’t automatically increase the tax-base. Sanitation and city services must be provided to these new homes and that costs the city money. My water-quality arguments may not be as economically viable as 78 new homes, but the cost of those homes will be more than they generate,” Armingeon says.
“When you dwell in madness, anything, anything, is possible. So sometimes the developers are going to win, but sometimes we’re going to be able to stop them. It really is crazy work,” Armingeon says.
“Along the Matanzas, one-third of the watershed is developed, one-third is publicly owned and protected and the final one-third is what we’re all fighting for. Developers want to build and we want to protect.”
“The Matanzas River is one of the healthiest rivers in Florida, one of the few left. Groups like ours and the Environmental Youth Council St. Augustine are fighting tooth and nail to preserve this all in the face of a changing climate and local development pressures.”
Armingeon is not sure when he will throw in the towel or if he will ever be able to. The battles seem to be constant and drawn out.
“I remember being up in North Carolina 30 years ago and fighting offshore drilling off the Outer Banks and today we’re doing the same off St. Johns County. In 30 years, we haven’t been able to figure out that shit is madness?”
Armingeon runs his finger over the black Sharpie line and exhales. He turns to the Matanzas River just in time to see a fin pop up a few yards out. He perks right up.
“Look at that, a porpoise mother and her baby swimming by.”