Year of the River: Reflections from St. Johns Riverkeeper

by Jim Draper

Failure to Act Now Is Not an Option

BY SHANNON BLANKINSHIP, St. Johns Riverkeeper, Outreach Director

The Year of the River is an initiative by Cultural Fusion Jax bringing together more than 50 institutions to raise awareness of the St. Johns River as the “cultural current” of our city and an important driver for economic development, recreation, tourism and quality of life throughout Northeast Florida. @CulturalFusionJax  #yotr

It is easy to become single-focused when it comes to the issue that matters most to you. Depending on your background, you probably approach that “issue” differently than others. This is why having 50 different cultural institutions in northeast Florida all work towards the 2015 theme of Year of the River has been eye opening and inspirational in ways that couldn’t have been predicted. Theatre, music, art exhibits, children’s curriculum, forums, boat tours and festivals have allowed this initiative to reach into every corner of the region, affecting not just residents, but tourists and those connected to northeast Florida from afar.

On the water, “Voices of the River:  An Exploration of African American History along the St. Johns” was a first-time collaboration by the Ritz Museum & Theatre, providing insight from a few of our most storied African American residents, James Weldon Johnson and Anna Kingsley. The Timucua Native American population was also given a voice through the “Currents of Time” exhibit at the Museum of Science & History. A boat trip with St. Johns Riverkeeper provided a modern look at the river, followed by a walk through The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens and performances by Theatre Jacksonville.  This event was such a success that it is likely to be repeated, and the collaborations and growth will continue!

Roux Arts Mirrored River_Southbank

Along the St. Johns, “Mirrored River: Where do you See Yourself” by Kate and Kenny Rouh of RouxArt will undoubtedly be an exhibit that not only commemorates the energy behind this year’s work from the Cultural Council of Jacksonville, but also continues to showcase the importance of our river in the city of Jacksonville. Being able to see the river, the city and our own reflection within this mosaic speaks to our interconnectedness and the role we all play in the health of the river. We have the ability to influence the St. Johns for good, or we can continue along an unsustainable path that leads to more water pollution and adverse impacts. The use of sustainable materials in this piece as well as a focus on reflective expression provides an important catalyst for community dialogue and introspection. The next step is action.

052015 Cummer Whitfield Lovell Exhibition Opening-25398

Photo-by-Dustin-Wooten-2015-02-24-08.10.47_webPerhaps, the exhibit that best flexed Year of the River muscles was Post to Post Links II error: No post found with slug "reflections-artful-perspectives-on-the-st-johns-river". In this exhibit, local artists were asked to take their experiences, talents, concerns and artistic ability and reflect on a piece of artwork from The Cummer Museum’s permanent collection with a modern interpretation. Combining fine art with such varied mediums as printmaking, glassblowing, and etching meant that this interpretive exhibit spoke well to the multitude of uses and concerns impacting the St. Johns River right now. Influence from man on the landscape dominated many of the modern interpretations, but also prominent was the immense influence that the St. Johns River has had on artists for more than 200 years.  

While we continue conversations about the need to protect the river and its tributaries from failing septic tanks, algae blooms, and stormwater runoff and the need for a stronger water conservation ethic, Year of the River has helped us to better understand what is at risk if we fail to clean up our mess. We have been enlightened and reminded of the importance of the river and her needs. Through artistic expression and collaboration, we have been able to experience, explore, and celebrate the magic of the St. Johns and our connections to her. Now, it is up to us to ensure through our actions that the Year of the River is only the beginning of many more to come.

This is a Call to Action

Many years ago Timucuan Indians lived off the bounty of our waterways, cattle forged the river and knuckle-heads like me paddled surfboards from Point La Vista across the river to N.A.S. Jacksonville’s river provides a delightful aspect to living on the First Coast. You can launch a boat from over 50 local public boat ramps and visit with friends, attend sporting events and concerts, shop Downtown, dine at a waterfront eatery or just enjoy the sunset.

Our river’s potential rivals that of any other waterway in the world and have an obligation to preserve and protect Jacksonville’s single greatest asset. Support for that cause challenges organizations and officials. This Year of the River focus has been a year long exploration highlighting the importance of engagement. Love our river. Appreciate and share the creative beauty that this Camelot environment inspires.

In many respects, the way our city is seen by outsiders is less dependent on the actions of our local government, or well-funded marketing and advertising campaigns, than on the portrayal of our region by local artists and musicians. Increasingly, artwork isn’t just hanging on the walls of museums or in the homes of people who can afford it. Artistic expression is being driven digitally by whatever creates the biggest buzz, and its boundaries are well beyond any city limits.

Ginnie Springs by Melissa Shawn Griffin‎ in SPring Hunters Facebook Group
Thousands of tiny fish at Ginnie Springs just after sunrise. Photo by Melissa Shawn Griffin‎, posted in the Spring Hunters Facebook Group.

Modern photographers are visiting our springs and taking underwater images, reaching potential tourists in far off countries and other states. Nearly 50,000 followers are seeking out the authentic “Old Florida” that is so easily shared via 1950’s postcards and images of sprawling rivers and live oaks through their very popular Facebook page. Videos of dolphins and manatees go viral and create a fascination with our great state that leads to future travel decisions for both recreational tourists and potential employers.

If there is one lesson learned from Year of the River, it is that the St. Johns River is a cultural driver and impenetrable source of inspiration and pride in Jacksonville and throughout Florida. The river, its beauty and bounty, supports much more than the fisheries, dolphins, manatees, oysters, and shrimp that call it home. It is more than just a “natural resource” that can be used for economic gain. The river is invaluable to our identity and our quality of life. The health of the St. Johns is a reflection of our community’s health and well-being, and this image will be projected to the world through the work of our local artists.

If we fail to clean up the St. Johns River today, generations of future artists, explorers, musicians, and painters will define our city in history as one ridden with toxic algae blooms and dirty water hazardous for wildlife. Photographers, instead of taking ethereal underwater pictures of gin-clear water teeming with fish, will be left with no choice but to feature the green-tinged polluted water that has already become the reality at many of our state’s springs. Instead of capturing the transcendent beauty of the St. Johns River at sunset, the artist will be left with a liquid landscape covered in green slime and dotted with “warning” signs, alerting us of health concerns and keeping us at bay. The potential for this to happen is actually not that far-fetched.  Health warning signs actually already exist along several of the tributaries in Jacksonville that flow into the river. Unfortunately, not a single sign has been removed since they were installed, meaning we haven’t cleaned up a single tributary from bacteria contamination after more than a decade of being required to do so.

This is a call to action. Let’s build upon the momentum of Year of the River by getting serious about our responsibility to the river. Now is the time to take the actions necessary to protect and restore this liquid treasure for current and future generations. We must stand up to protect the wetlands and marshes of the river from development and dredging. We can’t wait any longer to remove leaking septic tanks and upgrade JEA’s wastewater system to reduce the amount of pollution that is discharged into our river and its tributaries. Individually, we can prevent fertilizers and chemicals from our lawns from entering the St. Johns, and we can reduce our water consumption by conserving and using water more efficiently. WE can make these things happen!

Year of the River was the first step to moving our community, together, towards fully appreciating the immense importance of the river. Now is the time to take Year of the River to the next step. What about Year of Action for the River in 2016? We’re in.


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.