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 BACTERIA
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.
SUBMERGED AQUATIC VEGETATION (SAV)
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."