Riverkeeper: Development, pollution a 'double whammy' for St. Johns River

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The St. Johns Riverkeeper is calling on the community to protect the St. Johns River after a recent report found the water quality is getting worse. 

The annual State of the River report found the overall health of the river is declining, despite improving conditions for critical species like the bald eagle and Florida manatee. 

The annual River Report is more than 300 pages and takes a comprehensive and detailed look at the condition of the Lower St. Johns River Basin.

St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said that after looking at the report, her biggest concern is the increase in pollution.

READ: 2019 River Report on Lower St. Johns River Basin

“We’re seeing not only the real impact of climate change and sea-level rise but also an increase in pollution, which is a recipe for disaster," Rinaman warned.

The annual River Report found not only an increase in pollution but also in non-native animals and plants. It also found more development is negatively impacting the wetlands.  

“It’s really two-fold. If you’re losing wetlands and submerged grasses due to development and saltwater intrusion, the water is having a harder time filtering out pollution," Rinaman explained. "At the same time, we’re seeing an increase in pollution, so it’s a double whammy.”

Rinaman said more needs to be done to improve the river's health, including a team effort from everyone in the community to reduce fertilizer use and conserve water and energy. 

The Riverkeeper also encourages people to share their concerns with their local elected officials to make sure they are also doing their part to protect the river in the years to come

Below is a breakdown of some of the report's findings.

The Report addresses four main areas of river health: water quality, fisheries, aquatic life, and contaminants.

Several developments and trends are cause for concern in this year’s findings:

  •  Total nitrogen levels remain unsatisfactory because the annual maximum concentrations exceed the numeric nitrogen standard for peninsular Florida, the most comparable concentration standard available. In the period 2014-2018, the mainstem shows some improvement, while the tributaries are worsening.
  • Total phosphorus is unsatisfactory as well, for the same reason: annual maximum concentrations exceed the numeric phosphorus standard for peninsular Florida. During 2014-2018, phosphorus levels are rising in the marine reach of the mainstem, falling in the freshwater reach, and unchanged in the tributaries.
  • Reported values of chlorophyll a, an indicator of harmful algal blooms, show lower mean and median values, but exceedances and algal bloom events continue to occur regularly in the basin.
  • Fecal coliform levels in the tributaries have fallen, but these levels still greatly exceed water quality criteria.
  • Sea level rise poses a threat to the Basin, and it has been acknowledged that dredging the river channel could increase water levels.
  • Salinity continues to rise in the Basin, and the mixing zone between freshwater and saltwater has moved south, with potential negative impacts on submerged aquatic vegetation and the aquatic life that depends upon it.
  • Submerged aquatic vegetation has been destabilized by an anomalous weather pattern over the last two years: severe drought followed by major storms. Drought and the accompanying rise in salinity have reduced grass bed​​​​​​​ cover, and the turbidity accompanying major storms has limited grass bed recovery.
  • Wetland losses continue, due to increased land development.
  • A unique pattern in the 2016-2018 data, compared with 2009-2014, shows elevated levels of almost all of the metals,​​​​​​​ particularly arsenic, cadmium, nickel, lead, and silver in the predominantly saltwater portion of the LSJR mainstem. This occurrence follows Hurricanes Matthew (October 2016) and Irma (September 2017), as well as the dredging​​​​​​​operation in the LSJR (started in February 2018).

The trends of some indicators are unchanged:

  • Most finfish and invertebrate species are not in danger of overfishing, with the exception of channel and white catfish, which both have the potential to be overfished in the near future.
  • Threatened and endangered species continue to fare well, despite recent storm activity and effect on habitat.

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