A River Runs Through It

“When I came here in 2004, I did not want to go in that water.”

Randy Olsen wasn’t alone — and a decade on, there are still plenty of people who share that view, despite the considerable progress that’s been made. He’s no longer one of them. A retired volunteer for the St. Johns Riverkeeper — the nonprofit that acts as the river’s advocate, pushing back against the rapacious forces of industry and development that damn near killed the St. Johns in the 20th century and would love to continue plundering it to their own ends in the 21st — Olsen will serve as captain on my guided tour of the river this bracingly chilly Valentine’s Day afternoon.

Olsen’s in dark aviator glasses and a thick khaki shirt emblazoned with the group’s logo. We’re standing in the parking lot of Sadler Point Marina, where the organization’s boat, a 27-foot, flat-bottomed vessel called The King Fisher that’s normally used to investigate and document pollutants and fish kills and all the many things that can wreak havoc on wildlife and water quality, waiting for Lisa Rinaman, the woman whose job title shares the name of the group she leads: Riverkeeper.

If you pay much attention to environmental issues, you’ve seen Rinaman’s name in the news: dredging, water withdrawals, development schemes, algae, you name it. (Fun fact: When she first arrived in Jacksonville in 1997, Rinaman applied for a sales job at Folio Weekly. That she didn’t get it, and went on to be a policy advisor to Mayors Delaney and Peyton before joining the Riverkeeper, is probably for the best.)

Rinaman, who’s been on the job for two years now, has volunteered to give me a tour of the river — very much this region’s lifeblood, and one of Northeast Florida’s most vital and precious natural resources — as she sees it: the magnificent vista of Downtown on a cloudless, sunny day, yes, but also the omnipresent threats.

And make no mistake, she tells me after we launch: The river is still endangered. Not like it was a few decades ago, back before the Clean Water Act. Back then, she says, the city deemed it fit to dump 15 million gallons of untreated sewage into the river every day. Even a few years ago, the water was gross and smelly and uninviting. Things were so bad that the city couldn’t get developers to build on riverfront property, which is why, when you boat through Downtown, you see the old City Hall and courthouse and Duval County Public Schools building and the jail taking up what would be, anywhere else, prime real estate. (“We are probably the only community with a riverfront jail,” Rinaman tells me.)

Today, she says, the biggest threats come from JAXPORT’s plan to dredge the river to make room for larger ships (and, theoretically, more shipping-related jobs, though probably not nearly as many as supporters promise) and water managers’ aims at draining it for drinking and landscaping water elsewhere in the state.

And then there’s the pollution. “There are times we’ve had to tell people to stay away from the river,” she says. “It’s not just a cosmetic thing.”

She’s referring to the green blooms last summer that turned parts of the river a sickly green and likely led to fish kills, the result of too much nutrient pollution — failing septic tanks, agriculture runoff. “Too much nitrogen, too much phosphorus,” Rinaman says. “Agriculture has to be held accountable for their part.”

It’s too cold for the algae now, she says, but they’ll be back, and probably soon. Last year, they started and ended later than they ever had before. In a few months, chances are the boat’s wake will be not the color of iced tea but that pernicious green. The algae, she says, aren’t so much an illness as a symptom; they feed on pollutants, so when they show up in abundance, that’s a sign that the river is sick.

Given all that, not to mention this region’s addiction to unfettered, uncontrolled growth, you could forgive Rinaman for being pessimistic, but she doesn’t strike me that way at all. She sees a certain romanticism in the river. When she and her husband were dating, she tells me, they would take a boat out to a spot just between San Marco to the east and Riverside to the west, and watch the sun setting — a fiery, red sun — over Downtown.

“This is one of my favorite date spots,” she tells me.

And last year’s State of the River Report contained signs that water quality is improving, especially the levels of nitrogen and bacteria from sewage, which have decreased. The JEA’s under-construction wastewater treatment projects could remove another 1.6 million pounds of nitrogen.

Most of all, there’s potential in the fact that the river snakes the urban core as it does. If the river is preserved and maintained, if we can get beyond the urge to raid it and pollute it to satiate our desire for growth and sprawl, it could be the catalyst for the kind of real-city development that you see in places like Austin and San Antonio, the germs of which you see in things like the Riverside Arts Market.

But first, Rinaman has to convince us that the river is worth saving, worth improving, even if that means more regulations and more environmental controls. And apathy runs deep: In a survey that Jacksonville University professor Ray Oldakowski had his students conduct last year, only 2 percent of Jacksonville residents rated environmental protection the city’s top priority.

“People are not interacting with the river in the way we think they should,” he told the Times-Union. “Until people get to have fun using the river, they’re not going to find it crucial.”

But it is crucial, and there’s so much to do: It’s not just watersports, either — although I’m very much inclined to kayak McCoys Creek, which runs under the Times-Union building and into Brooklyn, when the weather warms, and maybe boat out to Exchange (or Rattlesnake) Island, gems that would have entirely escaped my notice had Rinaman not pointed them out to me.

It’s also about making this city cool. Imagine what we could do with that old, abandoned building where Ford used to build Model T’s, or how we could create a network of waterfront parks that connect the neighborhoods surrounding Downtown, or a Metro Park that now brims with activity only when a music festival comes to town.

The possibilities are endless. But none of it happens without a healthy St. Johns River.

“I try to look at it not as missed opportunity but future potential,” Rinaman tells me. “Of course, I’ve been saying that for 15 years.”