JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The St Johns River provides for northeast Florida. It provides for residents, industry and agriculture.
But the river's future is in peril. It’s integrity in danger of being compromised. Who is responsible? Those same residents, industry and agricultural entities that benefit from the river.
Government isn’t doing it a favor either. Not protecting the river means the waters flowing through our communities are troubled waters.
No one knows that more than Ben Williams.
“Even as a kid, I saw an economic opportunity. I mean, you could commercial, you could go out here and make a living. And you can still go out here and make a living. Whether it’s pulling crab traps, whether it’s being a commercial guide, and number of things,” Williams said.
Williams is a lifelong Mandarin resident. He grew up on the river, made his living on the river and enjoys using the river for recreation.
“If you protect this river … if you make sure that the fish are safe to eat, that the fish are there in good numbers, that the people have access to it, it can do this forever, and ever, and ever, and ever. Generation after generation," Williams said.
But not everyone is working to protect the St Johns River.
Scientists believe state agencies have failed the people. One of the most respected marine biologists in the country, Quinton White at Jacksonville University, believes is one who believes that government agencies have failed us.
“The state government slashed and burned our water management districts, overpaying the price now with poor water quality,” White said. "DEP seems to think that their job is to promote industry. I think their job should be to protect the public. We clearly have exceeded the capacity of pumping the water out of the aquifer. The people who said that three years ago no longer work at water management district. They’ve all been fired. That sends a powerful message about working there: ''Well, don’t go tell the truth, or make sure you tell our version of the truth because you’re going to cause problems otherwise.'”
Others people politics are at play and killing the St. Johns River. Among them, Sonny Vergara, former executive director of the St. Johns and Southwest Water Management District.
“The responsibilities of the water board members and their mind sets, in terms of what their jobs are, has shifted completely. It’s no longer to me, a serious purpose for them to be on the board, so that they can fix serious water management problems," Vergara said. "They’re in there to carry out the political directive out of Tallahassee.”
Williams questions the faith of those who live along and use the river to protect it.
“Yes and no. Yes, because, when I talk to other fishermen, but then you ride around a lot of places, and …. you’ve got St. Augustine grass to the bulkhead and you sit out there and you’ll see ChemLawn come along, and I realize I named a brand but you’ll see them out there spraying the pestilence and they’ve chosen green lush thick spongy St. Augustine grass over the health of the river,” Williams said.
Talk with those who grew up on, fish on, work on and love the river and they’ll tell you we all have a responsibility to protect it. In fact, they’ll tell you it takes a community.