2017 State of the River Report

2017 State of the River Report

The 10th State of the River Report was recently released by a team of academic researchers from Jacksonville University, University of North Florida, and Florida Southern College.   This annual report provides a summary and analysis of the health of the Lower St. Johns River Basin (LSJRB), addressing four main areas of river health: water quality; fisheries; aquatic life; and contaminants.  This year, the Report includes a new section about the Bottlenose Dolphin that inhabit the St. Johns.  You can access the complete report and information about specific tributaries at www.sjrreport.com

Here are some of the highlights from the 2017 River Report Executive Summary. 

The trends of some indicators have improved:

  • Total nitrogen levels in the mainstem and tributaries have declined.
  • Total phosphorus levels in the mainstem and tributaries have declined.
  • Dissolved oxygen levels in the mainstem are improving.
  • Conditions for three critical wildlife species have shown improvement: the bald eagle, the wood stork, and the Florida manatee.

The trends of some indicators have worsened:

  • Salinity has gradually risen over the last two decades and is expected to continue its increase, with increasing potential negative impacts on submerged aquatic vegetation and the aquatic life that depends upon it.
  • Nonnative species increased from 56 total species in 2008 to 80 in 2017, and the spread of lionfish and Cuban treefrogs is of particular concern due to their impacts on the native ecosystem.
  • Wetlands continue to be lost to development pressures.

The trends of many indicators are unchanged:

  • Dissolved oxygen levels in the tributaries have remained unsatisfactory and have not shown improvement.
  • Chlorophyll a, an indicator of harmful algal blooms, has not decreased in the ten-year timeframe and shows no indication of decreasing soon.
  • Fecal coliform levels remain significantly above water quality criteria in many tributaries.
  • Submerged aquatic vegetation has experienced some very recent regrowth due to rainfall, but the long-term trend is uncertain.
  • 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. 

Here are some other Report highlights and takeaways from St. Johns RIVERKEEPER.

In the last decade, lawsuits initiated by St. Johns RIVERKEEPER and several other environmental organizations have successfully forced regulatory agencies to adopt more stringent nutrient pollution standards for the St. Johns.   While nitrogen levels have declined as a result of these new rules, the status remains "UNSATISFACTORY" in both the mainstem and tributaries.  In other words, we have made progress, but we also have a ways to go. Future growth and development could undermine these efforts, if we don't hold regulatory agencies and polluters accountable to further reduce nutrient pollution. 

From 2008-2012, algal blooms were rated as WORSENING by the River Report, while trends were UNCHANGED from 2013-2017.  According to this year's report, "the data do not show overall reductions of chlorophyll over the past 10 years, and the occurrence of yearly blooms..."   So, while nutrients have declined, frequent algal blooms are still occurring in the river, indicating that further reductions in nutrients are necessary.   Also, more freequent monitoring and sampling of blooms is needed to accurately assess the extent of the problem. The report indicates "that some blooms are not sampled and analyzed, and thus are not figured into hard numbers that are used to determine the health of the river."

According to the 2017 Report, "the current STATUS of salinity is rated as unsatisfactory because of its impacts, and the TREND of salinity is rated as worsening because it is increasing."  This is due to human activities, such as dredging and water withdrawals, and natural causes, such as sea level rise. 

Fecal coliform end up in our waterways from failing septic tanks, sewage overflows, pet waste, and manure from farms. "For all ten years of this Report series, the status of fecal coliform bacteria in St. Johns River tributaries has been rated UNSATISFACTORY due to fecal coliform numbers that have been persistently higher than the water quality criteria."  

The 2017 Report states that"the current overall STATUS for DO [Dissolved Oxygen] in the LSJR [Lower St. Johns River] mainstem is satisfactory and the TREND in the freshwater portion of the mainstem is unchanged, while the trend in the marine/estuarine portion of the mainstem is improving....However, the STATUS for DO in the LSJR tributaries is unsatisfactory (dependent on location, time of day, and season) and the TREND is worsening."  Dissolved oxygen (DO), or the concentration of soluble oxygen in the water, is critical to the health of fish and aquatic plants and animals. DO can be can be impacted by temperature, salinity, sediments and organic matter from erosion, agricultural and residential runoff, industrial wastewater, and excess nutrients. This is why it is critical that we prevent runoff of sediments and fertilizers, reduce the discharge of nutrients into our waterways, and avoid activities that can increase salinity and temperatures in our tributaries.  

Grass beds are critical to the health of the river, providing essential habitat and food sources for many important invertebtrates, fish, and manatee. Scientists use SAV distribution and abundance as major indicators of ecosystem health.  The status of SAV was rated as UNSATISFACTORY in the 2017 Report, but "reduced sampling frequency and coverage has led to much of the uncertainty associated with trend analysis." According to the Report, "The grass beds monitoring program should be resumed and expanded as soon as possible especially in light of efforts to further deepen the port channel, and the pending environmental and habitat changes that are likely to ensue as a result of global warming, rising sea levels, El Niño events, and storms." Dredging at the mouth and potential water withdrawals in Central Florida will increase salinity farther upriver, causing further damage to important SAVs.

"Given the continued trend of mitigation via purchase of mitigation credits and off-site conservation areas in place of on-site mitigation, the outlook for local wetlands in the LSJRB does not look promising."

Problems with turbidity can occur when muddy waters from construction sites wash into creeks and rivers.  This was a major problem and priority of St. Johns RIVERKEEPER during the early years of the organization.   According to the 2017 River Report, turbidity in the tributaries of the river was UNSATISFACTORY from 2008-2013, but was changed to SATISFACTORY in 2014.  While improvements have been made, rapid growth is occurring throughout the watershed of the St. Johns, making construction-site compliance and stormwater management more important than ever.   That is why we recently launched our Get the Dirt Out volunteer monitoring program.  

"The STATUS of point sources of toxics emitted into the atmosphere is satisfactory because the rate of emissions is similar to the rest of the state and the TREND is improving. The STATUS of point sources of toxics discharged into the LSJR [Lower St. Johns River] surface waters is unsatisfactory because the rate of discharges exceeds the rest of the state, and the TREND is unchanged."

"Of particular concern is the large Cedar-Ortega basin, which has repeatedly exhibited among the highest levels and frequencies of contamination over the years. It has been recognized at least since 1983 that the large, complex network of tributaries is burdened by years of discharges of wastewaters and runoff from small, poorly managed industries, and from identified and unidentified hazardous waste sites. This is particularly true of Cedar River."

Lost Springs of the Ocklawaha

Lost Springs of the Ocklawaha

For over 45 years, the Ocklawaha River (the largest tributary of the St. Johns River) and its springs and wetlands have been impacted by a dam that was built in Putnam County as part of the failed Cross Florida Barge Canal. The Rodman Dam (now known as the Kirkpatrick Dam) resulted in the clearing and flooding of approximately 7,500 acres of floodplain forests, while submering over 20 springs beneath a massive pool of water.

However, the pool behind the dam must be drawn down every 3 to 4 years to remove invasive plants that flourish and choke the waterways, and the “lost springs” reemerge.

We are excited to announce a new multimedia exhibition from painter/activist Margaret Ross Tolbert (and last year’s Oyster Roast featured artist) and environmental filmmaker Matt Keene that chronicles the tragic demise of the iconic springs of the Ocklawaha River.

Presented by the University of North Florida Lufrano Intercultural Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville (MOCA), the “Lost Springs of the Ocklawaha” exhibition features images, sculpture and film of Cannon Springs and Tobacco Patch Springs created by numerous artists, including Tolbert and Keene.

Here is a list of all the upcoming "Lost Springs" events: 

September 21 - 'Lost Springs of the Ocklawaha' Opening Reception at UNF's Lufrano Gallery, 5 - 8 pm
This multimedia exhibition runs through Tuesday, October 24.   Click here for more details. 

Sept 23 - December 31 - “Margaret Ross Tolbert: Lost Springs” in the UNF Gallery at MOCA

Sept 24 - "Lost Springs” Reception and Film Premier at MOCA, 1 - 4 pm
Screenings of the film take place at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. in MOCA’s Theater.

Sept 28 - "Lost Springs" Film Screening in the UNF Student Union Auditorium (Building 58W, Room 2704), 7 pm

October 3 - "Lost Springs" Film Screening in the UNF Student Union Auditorium (Building 58W, Room 2704), 7 pm

October 12 - "Lost Springs" Film Screening in the UNF Student Union Auditorium (Building 58W, Room 2704), 12:30 pm

November 2 - Panel Discussion featuring Tolbert and Keene in the MOCA Theater, 7 to 9 pm. 

All events are free and open to the public.  Click here for more about these upcoming events at UNF and MOCA. 

Learn more about the artists, exhibition and film in these recent Florida Times-Union and EU Jacksonville articles and on the Lost Springs website.  

You can also find more information here about the benefits of restoring the Ocklawaha. 

JAXPORT Avoids Dredging Debate

JAXPORT Avoids Dredging Debate Image credit: Florida Times-Union

In an attempt to head off public scrutiny of the proposed dredging, JAXPORT has recently deployed three strategies - 1) delay the ask for local funding until the dredging is well underway, 2) make false claims the project has already been fully vetted and 3) hide behind St. Johns RIVERKEEPER's lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers to avoid participation in any public dialogue. 


In June, JAXPORT announced a new plan to dredge 11 miles of the St. Johns River, instead of 13, that would not require funding from the City of Jacksonville until 2020.  This would allow JAXPORT to begin dredging later this year, before the project has been fully vetted and approved by the local community.  Throughout the entire decision-making process, it has always been presented to the public that the City Council would be the last stop and best opportunty to ensure that the proposed dredging has been comprehensively reviewed, scrutinized and debated.  Under this new plan, JAXPORT does not plan to come back to the City Council for funding until the project is well underway and Jacksonville is on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars. At that point, the opportunity for a meaningful public debate may be lost and the City Council will be boxed in a corner.


JAXPORT recently provided Jacksonville City Council members with a four-inch binder of public meeting notices, agendas, and minutes related to harbor deepening discussions that have occurred in the past 6 years.  

JAXPORT would like us all to believe that the proposed dredging has already been thoroughly evaluated and publicly vetted and no further discussion is necessary.

However, we took the time to analyze all of the documents in the binder, and nothing could be further from the truth.   In fact, we participated in most of the referenced meetings while JAXPORT sat silently along the sideline.

The documents submitted to City Council actually demonstrate that JAXPORT has made little attempt to provide or even encourage a robust community dialogue and comprehensive assessment of this project. Most of the meetings cited only included brief updates on the status of the dredging or a specific component of the project and did not provide a complete picture of the project or a platform for broad public participation and discussion.

Numerous documents even refer to presentations and comments that St. Johns RIVERKEEPER provided to various organizations, commissions, and boards regarding the shortcomings of the dredging plan, the unanswered questions that remain, and the need for a more comprehensive vetting of the project. 

In response to JAXPORT's attempt to shutdown public dialogue, we submitted a letter to the Council members calling for a transparent public discussion about the pros and cons of the dredging project.  

Our letter included an assessment of the JAXPORT binder documents, demonstrating that there have been no public meetings have been held to discuss:

  • the new 11-mile dredging plan,
  • the total cost of the harbor expansion (including tenant relocation costs and landside improvements),
  • funding sources and Jacksonville’s anticipated financial obligations, the recent analysis by Dale Lewis and Dr. Asaf Ashar questioning the economic viability of the project, or
  • the tradeoffs in local public programs and services that would be necessary in future years.

In addition, these meetings all failed to adequately address the flaws in the Army Corps of Engineers' economic and environmental assessment and the lack of mitigation that exists to offset the inevitable damage that will occur to our river.

The bottom line is that these documents demonstrate a lack of transparency and a lack of full disclosure, reinforcing the need for robust public dialogue and comprehensive evaluation by City Council and the local community before the project begins. 


The third strategy that JAXPORT is using is the excuse that our lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers is preventing them from participating in any public debate or forum regarding the proposed dredging.   As a result, JAXPORT has refused to particiipate in a recent Rotary Club meeting with Dale Lewis (local logistics expert who has questioned the economic viability of the project), a public forum that was being organized by the Dupont Foundation, or any potential public meetings held by the Jacksonville City Council to discuss the pros and cons of the project.  

However, the lawsuit is aimed at the Army Corps of Engineers, not JAXPORT.  The port voluntarily decided to intervene in our lawsuit.  As the City's attorney told the JAXPORT Board, intervention provides the benefit of "knowing exactly what's going on" and discussions "could be held in the Shade as JAXPORT is subject to sunshine laws and public record laws."    Our lawsuit is not preventing JAXPORT from participating in public dialogue and debate about the dredging.  JAXPORT is preventing it to avoid public scrutiny. 

CLICK HERE to learn more about this important issue and how it will impact the future of the St. Johns River.  

Also, read this letter that we recently submitted to Jacksonville City Council President Anna Brosche outlining our concerns and the actions that must take place to protect our river and local taxpayers before the project proceeds. 

READ: Ron Littlepage: Why are dredging supporters afraid to have a debate over spending the public’s money?

How Will Dredging Impact Sea Level Rise?

How Will Dredging Impact Sea Level Rise?

This post is by Dr. Jeremy Stalker.  Jeremy is an Associate Professor at Jacksonville University in the Marine Science Research Institute.

Dredging Will Accelerate the Impacts of Sea Level Rise

I will always support responsible, well thought out development for our city. I also support ideas that have forethought, looking into the future and using the best science to guide decisions. The proposed dredging of the St Johns River does not fit these criteria.

I have been studying hydrology and sea level rise in North Florida for 6 years and in South Florida for 12 years. The scientific analysis presented by the Army Corp of Engineers to estimate the physical impacts in the river are incorrect, incomplete, and seriously flawed.

Estuaries like the St. Johns River are dynamic systems that change in temperature and tide with each season, tide and storm. These systems and the plants and animals that live in them are well adapted to these changes. They can even withstand extreme events of high temperatures and high salinities for short periods of time. The analysis of the proposed dredging ignores the steadily increasing rise of sea level and its impacts. This plan uses an exceptionally low rate of sea level rise that is not supported by any scientific observations currently being collected.

Sea levels are rising, and in most places accelerating. Worldwide, flooding events caused by the regular high tide, often coupled with normal rainfall are becoming more and more frequent. You really only need to go down to St. Augustine at a high tide after a summer rainstorm to see water backing up into the streets. At times, we also see this happening in low-lying areas of Jacksonville, like San Marco and Riverside.

This will become more and more common in our coastal cities, and our cities connected to tidal rivers. This higher sea level will push saltwater farther up the river. The dredging will accelerate this salinization process by increasing the volume of area the seawater can enter through.

It will push salty water deeper into tributaries and further up the mainstream of the river. This will also increase the length of time the plants and animals will have to withstand higher salinities. The likely increase in freshwater withdrawals from the river upstream in Central Florida will only exacerbate this problem. These kinds of extended, extreme occurrences have led to sea grass die-off events in both Biscayne and Florida Bays. Plants and animals that depend on brackish conditions will find their habitat diminished.

The rise of sea level isn't going to go away. Even if we begin limiting the causes of ice loss, the system will move towards higher levels for centuries before slowing down.

I hope our regulatory agencies will use sound science, and be honest about the impacts so we can make good, informed decisions. Ignoring the rising seas and their effects on the modeling is short-sighted, simply pushing off the problem to our children and grandchildren. We need an honest assessment of the environmental impacts of the dredging, and only then can we really weigh the cost and benefits.

Click here for more information about the proposed dredging of the St. Johns River.

How Will Dredging Impact Fisheries?

How Will Dredging Impact Fisheries? Photo credit: Will Dickey, willdickey.com

This post is by Dr. Clay L. Montague.  Clay is an Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida in the Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences.

How Harbor Deepening Impacts Migratory Fishes

Decisions about JAXPORT harbor deepening are being based on incomplete data that may affect you and your food supply. Harbor deepening could eliminate key habitat for seafood production near the freshwater ends of tidal creeks.

Duval County alone includes more than sixty tributaries of the St Johns River estuary, from tiny Mud Flats Creek at Spanish Point to large ones like Clapboard Creek, Trout River, Arlington River, Ortega River and Julington Creek. You may live near a creek that connects to the St Johns River estuary. Many if not all of these tributaries include sensitive habitat for coastal fishes.
Harbor deepening lets in more saltwater from the ocean. The salt travels upstream with the incoming tides, eventually squeezing the brackish and fresh habitat into a smaller space between salt marsh and upland, or overwhelming it altogether. 

Over the past 50 years, shad, herrings, striped bass, and eels have been in steep decline all along the Atlantic seaboard owing to a variety of assaults on their habitat. Most other commercially and recreationally important fish, shrimp, and crabs also depend on fresh or brackish habitat during some part of their lives. Fishery managers are now trying to restore habitat for all those special coastal species we use as food. Unmitigated impacts of harbor deepening will set back this effort. 

The modeling studies to assess the impact of JAXPORT deepening have not adequately evaluated loss of habitat in the vital upstream portions of the many tributaries. In particular, data available to compare with model predictions at the upper reach of Clapboard Creek apparently went unused. 

Also, model calibration was done only for a period of drought, incorrectly assuming a worst case scenario. In fact, salinity intrusion during a wet period would be the time when these fresher habitats are well used by fishes, and are therefore most sensitive to a salinity increase caused by harbor deepening. 

Furthermore, in a wetlands assessment for the project, upstream impacts of downstream activities seemed to be discounted, perhaps unwittingly, if the assessors hired were not familiar with tidal creeks. In estuaries, effects of downstream actions can easily reach upstream habitats on every incoming tide. 

Predictions about upstream impacts in tributaries are crucial to get right if we are to manage seafood production effectively, and compensate appropriately for any damage. Since both validation and calibration of the models seem wholly inadequate, conclusions that impacts are insignificant are unsupportable and probably wrong.

Some have quipped that since sea level is rising, more salt is entering anyway, so why bother? We would not apply that reasoning to our own passing, lest it become an excuse for murder. In the coming century, rising sea level may indeed drive a general retreat from the coast. Even if the only value of fish is for food, our imperative would naturally be to care dearly for the remaining habitat we have for as long as we can. With care, the next century of fish production will support many seafood dinners in spite of rising sea level. 

We need not retreat from the coast before necessary, but we can plan better. We can insist on impact predictions based on the best possible modeling efforts and data. With accurate predictions, we can decide together if the project is worth the damage.

Click here for more information about the proposed dredging of the St. Johns River.

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2017 State of the River Report
2017 State of the River Report
Lost Springs of the Ocklawaha
Lost Springs of the Ocklawaha
JAXPORT Avoids Dredging Debate
JAXPORT Avoids Dredging Debate
How Will Dredging Impact Sea Level Rise?
How Will Dredging Impact Sea Level Rise?

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