BY SHANNON BLANKINSHIP, Outreach Director, St. Johns Riverkeeper
For the ninth year in a row, researchers from University of North Florida, Jacksonville University, and Valdosta State have compiled data and analyzed trends regarding the health of the Lower St. Johns River Basin. This area, from Welaka to Mayport, runs over 100 miles and is a unique ecological system. The Report addresses four areas of river health: water quality, fisheries, aquatic life, and contaminants. This year, the report also included a poll about community access to the river. The idea is that the more people on the river, the more we will respect and care for it.
Here is how we fared in 2016:
- Total nitrogen levels in the mainstem have declined. (Too much nitrogen can lead to algae blooms and fish kills.)
- Overall air emissions of toxic chemicals in the region are down.
Indicators that got worse:
- Salinity has gradually risen over the last two decades and is expected to continue its increase. (This is bad news for submerged grasses, the foundation of the river as a food source and habitat.)
- Overall discharges of toxic chemicals in the region have increased.
- Nonnative, or invasive, species increased this year to 75 total species, and the spread of lionfish and Cuban treefrogs is of particular concern due to their impacts on the native ecosystem. (Eat more lionfish, folks! Whole Foods Natural Market and The Fish Company both sell this tasty, flaky invasive whitefish.)
Here is what remains unchanged:
- Phosphorus levels in both mainstem and tributaries remain unsatisfactory. (Phosphorous is also a nutrient that contributes to algae blooms.)
- Fecal coliform levels remain higher than the water quality limits in many tributaries. (This is poop, people. We’re talking failing septic tanks, farms, and water treatment plant discharges. Seventy-five tributaries in the lower section of the St. Johns are unhealthy due to excessive fecal coliform bacteria levels!)
- Threatened and endangered species are stable. (Manatees, Bald Eagle, Wood Stork, etc.)
- Wetlands continue to be lost to development pressures. (We are talking 1 acre here, 10 acres there—and it adds up! Wetland fragmentation and destruction is a major threat to the overall health of the river. A recent study projected an increase in Florida’s population of 15 million people and the development of over six million acres of land. As undeveloped natural areas are converted to housing and commercial space, important wildlife habitat, such as wetlands, will be destroyed.)
Now, let’s understand how many of us actually use the St. Johns. Of 373 individuals sampled, 70% have used a water access facility, such as a boat ramp or riverwalk, within the last month. Two-thirds of us feel that additional water access facilities were needed in Duval County. By taking advantage of the opportunities to enjoy this magnificent waterway, we will all develop a greater appreciation for our river and the possibilities for restoration and access will only become more likely.
To see the full report, speak with the scientists, get copies of the brochure, or learn more about any of the trends in the Lower St. Johns River, visit www.sjrreport.com. This year, you can also find out more information about the river and its tributaries close to where you live by searching the website by your Jacksonville City Council district or planning district.