Health of St. Johns River is everyone’s problem

I wish I had a nickel for every time over the years that I have heard someone say how critical the St. Johns River is to our community. The river is often cited as a blessing, Jacksonville’s greatest asset, an economic engine, the crown jewel, and even the reason for our community’s very existence.

Despite the river’s importance, we haven’t always treated her with the respect and reverence that is warranted and implied by our words. Years of neglect, indifference, and abuse are now catching up with us, and it’s not just the St. Johns that is threatened.

Most of Florida’s waterways are suffering from significant pollution problems such as fertilizer runoff, poorly treated municipal and industrial wastewater, toxic chemicals and failing septic tanks. Combined with the impacts from a rapidly growing population that is projected to increase by another 14 million people over the next 50 years or so, we have a potential recipe for disaster. 

Despite this gloomy outlook, the future of the St. Johns and Florida’s waterways has yet to be written. We, the citizens to whom they belong, will decide what that future looks like. Will we accept the status quo and allow the health of our waterways to continue to decline or will we choose a more sustainable path forward?

To help answer that question, St. Johns Riverkeeper recently released a new documentary, “Troubled Waters.” The film highlights the significant pollution problems that exist, the politics that are undermining our environmental protections, and the impending water crisis that we face. More importantly, it serves as an important call to action for all of Florida’s rivers, lakes, springs, and aquifers.

Water is the lifeblood of Florida’s economy and essential to our health and quality of life, yet we often act as if it is an infinite commodity that can be exploited and used indiscriminately.  We simply cannot afford to continue to sacrifice our valuable water resources for the politics of the moment and the fortunes of a few. 

We have an opportunity to right the ship, but we must act now by taking personal responsibility for our individual actions, speaking up and getting involved, and holding polluters, our government and our elected officials accountable. 

Here is how you can get started at home and in your community. First of all, you can’t take action if you don’t know about the problems and issues that are impacting the St. Johns.  There are many good sources to keep you informed. The Resident obviously does a great job covering river issues. The St. Johns Riverkeeper website includes extensive information and resources. The annual State of the River Report ( from the University of North Florida and Jacksonville University provides an objective analysis of the current status and trends for numerous health parameters for the St. Johns.

Next, you can do a lot by doing your part to be River Friendly and reduce the impact that you and your family have on the river. By using less fertilizer, we can help prevent toxic algal blooms. By conserving water, we can protect our aquifer and springs and prevent the need for surface water withdrawals from the St. Johns. By conserving energy and choosing renewable sources, we can eliminate the mercury that is poisoning our fish and threatening our health.

Get involved in the local decision-making process. You can make a difference by making sure our waterways have a voice when zoning and comprehensive plan decisions are made. By speaking up, we can let our elected leaders know that we want to invest in our river by eliminating failing septic tanks, upgrading wastewater treatment systems, preventing polluted storm water from reaching the river, and providing access to the St. Johns.

We also have a critical role in holding our government agencies and elected leaders accountable. We must demand that JEA do a much better job of preventing raw sewage spills into our river and tributaries. By reporting violations to the appropriate agencies and following up, we can make sure that environmental protections are being followed, implemented and enforced. A perfect example is the construction-site runoff that silted in Willow Branch Creek and the citizens who stayed on top of the issue to ensure that the City took action to resolve the problem and address the damage that was done.

The bottom line is that clean water and good government require our participation. By getting involved and doing our individual part, we can save Florida’s troubled waters. The future is up to us.

By Jimmy Orth
St. Johns Riverkeeper Executive Director

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