State of the St. Johns River

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.

The Upper Basin
The St. Johns begins in a vast marsh similar to the Everglades. In fact, the point at which the two are divided took scientists well into the 20th century to determine. Many of the same problems associated with the Everglades affect the St. Johns: dykes and levees starve marshlands of water flow for agriculture, pesticides and fertilizers run off into waterways, and manure from grazing livestock adds additional nutrients at an alarming rate to the river.
Similar to the Everglades though, attention has been given to protecting conservation lands in our upper basin. Thousands of acres are preserved specifically for water quality, dykes are being removed, and natural flow is being restored. Still, encroaching development, agriculture, and alterations to the flow of water plague the headwaters of the St. Johns, creating additional impacts to our river’s health downstream.

The Middle Basin
The middle basin is dramatically different from the upper, looking more like a pearl necklace than a marsh. Here, massive lakes like Lake Jessup, Harney, George, Monroe, Hell n’ Blazes and Puzzle Lake are connected through narrow channels of river, as narrow as the unassuming tributaries that enter the river in this section. The major tributaries that contribute flow to our river in this stretch are largely spring-fed and include the Wekiva, Econlockhatchee, and the Ocklawaha. With each entry, the issues affecting these rivers add to the problems facing the St. Johns.
Rodman Dam, which prevents free flow from Silver Springs into the Ocklawaha River, also retains toxic sediment buildup and pollution that settles on the artificial lake floor behind the dam. Periodic water and sediment releases by the Army Corps of Engineers puts pollution in the river, causing fish kills and discoloration for days. The Econlockhatchee flows through much of the sprawling development in Orlando, picking up stormwater and sediment on its journey. Most dramatically, the springs that contribute an estimated 20–30 percent of the freshwater flow in the St. Johns River have declined in magnitude by as much as 50 percent and nitrates have increased dramatically. This has resulted in algal growth, poor water quality, reduced clarity and less habitat for endemic fish and wildlife. Lacking adequate protection for our springsheds, the land that drains into our springs, has left the water flowing from the springs a greenish tinge. This is largely due to artificial green lawns and the water and fertilizer used to grow them.

St Johns River sunset sky at Walter JonesThe Lower Basin
Flowing from Welaka to the mouth of the St. Johns at Mayport, the river again takes a dramatic change. The lower basin is wide and slow, majestic and blue from afar but brown and turbid up close. Those of us living in this section have the disadvantage of receiving all of the pollution from upstream combined with the impacts associated with a dense population.
In the Lower Basin, our threats are not foreign. Each year since 2005, scientists from Jacksonville University and University of North Florida collaborate to produce “The State of the River Report for the Lower St. Johns”. The report describes the health of the river on a number of health indicators, with each receiving either a Thumbs Up, for meeting minimum state and federal standards, or a Thumbs Down. In addition, the report tracks trends and whether or not conditions are improving, worsening, or remain unchanged.
Having a report of this kind is critical to understanding the threats to our river’s health. It also provides a critical tool for policy makers to then develop and implement solutions and evaluate progress. To access the brochure or the full report, visit www.sjrreport.com. While it is essential that we evaluate the health status of the river, it is more important to look at what we’re doing to resolve the problems.

Future Thinking
The threats facing the St. Johns are not in our distant past. Unfortunately, no major funding is underway to repair or replace over 20,000 failing septic tanks located in Duval County that are leaking into our river. We still haven’t decided to take enforcement seriously on outdoor irrigation or proper fertilizer use. The water management district continues to issue permits and allow the over-pumping of our aquifer. At the same time, growth and development are ramping up again. This means that more fragile wetlands may be destroyed, more polluted stormwater will flow to our river, and more people will require more water and generate more pollution, creating more challenges and potential threats. Unfortunately, many state legislators are focused on gutting environmental protections and eliminating growth management requirements.
Florida Springs Protection
Silver Springs_editIf 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 decline,” 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 Engineers 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.

Water Withdrawals
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 Ocklawaha 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 withdrawals, 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 have to 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.

 

About Shannon Blankinship

Shannon Blankinship is the Outreach Director for St. Johns Riverkeeper and contributes regularly via the “On The River” column building awareness for the many issues that impact the St. Johns River. Shannon received her B.S. from Purdue University in Natural Resources Economics and Policy and her J.D. from Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville. She is currently an elected official in Duval County serving on the Soil and Water Conservation District. She is a board member for the local nonprofit The Girls Gone Green and regularly contributes articles affecting animals and health. She is a Springfield resident and works to promote all things great in the urban core neighborhoods.

2 comments

  1. In the upper basin, dikes are being removed, yet there are bigger ones being built further up the hill. I think their purpose is to hold back water being drained from Palm Bay and other towns along that stretch. Also, in the area of the Mormon/Deseret Ranch area, dikes and cattle grazing are still right to the main channel of the river.

    Note: In the Author’s listing of lakes in the middle basin, Lake Jesup (named after General Thomas Jesup, the father of modern Army/military logistics) he spelled his name with only ONE ‘S’. So it’s not Jessup, but Jesup. There is a city in Georgia spelled with two S’s and probably the source of this common confusion.

    Also in that same sentence, Lake Helen Blazes is not in the middle basin, It’s in solidly in the upper basin. Along with Lake Washington, Lake Sawgrass, Lake Winder, and Lake Poinsette. It could be (and is) argued that the middle basin doesn’t begin until the river cuts west across the Florida Ridge at Geneva Florida. If that were the case, Lake Harney, and Puzzle Lake (Along with Clark Lake, Ruth Lake, Loughman Lake, and Salt Lake) would also be included in the upper basin. But it’s at Lake Harney, just a mile before the cut across the ridge, where the river really changes its mode and appearance, and I think it [Lk. Harney] is the generally accepted dividing lake for the upper/middle basin.

  2. I forgot Lake Cane. (on the river, just north of Hwy 50) On the maps it’s almost always listed as Lake CONE, but any local will tell you that it’s always been CANE. (for the vast forest of cane grass that grows on it’s shores). Probably a typo by early map makers and surveyors, or a difficulty reading handwriting when transposing a hand-drawn map into the gov’t topo maps. But if you ever want to expose yourself as an outsider while in the area of Christmas Florida, just call it Lake Cone. They’ll laugh at you and know you’re not from around here. 😉

april, 2022

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