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2017 State Of St. Johns River Report: Another Mixed Review Of River's Health

Lindsey Kilbride
The St. Johns River

This year’s State of the River Report concludes there’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to some nutrients and pollutants that cause toxic algal blooms, including chlorophyll and fecal coliform. That’s even though levels of certain pollutants like phosphorus and nitrogen, have been trending downward in the last 10 years.

Using a large number of quality tests over the years, investigators’ newest study results fit neatly within the river report’s decade-old trend —good news is always accompanied by bad news.

“Our summary of 10-year findings shows long-term drops in both nitrogen and phosphorus, which is good news about an important indicator that regional organizations have worked to improve. But algal blooms, which come from high nitrogen and phosphorus, haven’t decreased yet,” wrote Dr. Radha Pyati, chair and professor of chemistry at the University of North Florida in a news release.

Related: Read the report

The 10th annual report, which like its predecessors focuses mostly on the river’s lower basin, builds on the nine that came before, combining data gathered from 2007 to the present. Like last year’s report, this year’s concludes once again that the salinity level of the brackish “lazy river” is still too high and report authors expect it to continue to increase. Experts say the river’s salt content can lead to a culling of important vegetation.

“Salinity continues to increase from a variety of factors, some of which are natural and some caused by human actions. Ever since the river has been modified by humans, particularly by digging it deeper and removing fresh water, the increase in salinity has been exacerbated,” wrote Dr. Gerry Pinto, associate research scientist at the Jacksonville University Marine Science Research Institute.

Scientists also say that the amount of nonnative species along the river have also increased, from 56 nine years ago to 80 this year. It also tracks the health of bottlenose dolphins which traverse the river and its tributaries, documenting threats to the health of the species and providing some explanation for large die-offs.

Wetlands surrounding the river and its tributaries are also continuing to erode due to development pressures, the report concludes. Meanwhile, other long-term trends have remained stable, if still too high.

Along with the release of the report, Jacksonville University is also making public the results of a poll surveying how residents use the river and what they think about its future.

The survey is actually a comparison study between a survey of 171 residents in 2012 and 448 people in 2016. Both polls were conducted by phone and interviewers under the direction of JU’s Social Science Research Center asked whether respondents used in the river in recreation, whether they agreed with the deep dredging of a portion of the St. Johns and whether they consider the river “degraded and in need of cleanup,” among other things.

Fifty-one percent of respondents aware of the proposed dredging project were opposed, while 34 percent supported it. Only 25 percent of respondents in 2016 said they fished along the river, relatively unchanged from 2012. The poll also found that the amount of respondents who believe the river is degraded and in need of a major cleanup went from 52 percent in 2012 to 59 percent in 2016.

The report is authored by scientists at the University of North Florida, Jacksonville University and other academic institutions and entities.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.