Forty years after first river cleanup, St. Johns River still ‘troubled waters’

Fifty years ago, Jacksonville dumped 15 million gallons of raw sewage and 90 million gallons of industrial waste into the St. Johns River – every day – and thought nothing of it.

“If you fall in the St. Johns, you’ll die of pollution before you drown,” Gov. Claude Kirk was known to say. And he wasn’t kidding. In 1971 the city health department warned that anyone swimming in the river downtown could contract 27 communicable diseases, according to news reports at that time.

The river was dying, and no one cared.

A few years earlier, in 1969, Jacksonville Mayor Hans Tanzler had called foul.

He vowed to clean up the river, but it wouldn’t come cheap. Tanzler wanted a $90 million bond issue plus federal money to install pipelines to divert sewage to new treatment plants, according to news reports. Taxpayers responded with a recall campaign.

Tanzler persisted and, 40 years ago, in 1977 celebrated the cleanup with the first River Day Festival by skiing under the Main Street and Acosta Bridges with a couple of beauties from the Cypress Gardens Water Ski show.

There was a lot to celebrate. The city had spent $154 million to build three treatment plants, close 78 sewage outfalls and lay 150 miles of sewer lines, according to news reports. New regulations required permits and set fines for violations.

The St. Johns, though far from clean, had gotten a new lease on life and, the city was starting to think of it less as a toilet and more as an asset.

After Tanzler left office, during the 1980s the St. Johns River became the focus of development – Metropolitan Park, the Jacksonville Landing, the Riverwalk, and residential high-rises were built. The river became the backdrop for the Riverside Arts Market. And, aerial glamour shots taken during Jaguars games in the 1990s gave the city and the nation a new angle on the river.

Over the decades, the St. Johns has gone from being a dump to an asset to a resource. And it entered the 21st century with two new allies – Mayor John Peyton and the St. Johns Riverkeeper.

In 2006, the city, JEA and the state Department of Environmental Protection signed the River Accord, committing $700 million to improve the health of the river by upgrading treatment plants, eliminating failing septic tanks, capturing and treating stormwater. The goal was to bring the nutrient level in the river down to below state and federal standards.

Riverfront plans
good for river’s future

A major effort, initiated by City Council President Lori Boyer, is under way to improve public access to the river with the creation of a Maritime Management Plan. A team from Jacksonville University, the University of North Florida and the Northeast Florida Regional Planning Council has been collecting information for the project.

A survey of more than 750 residents last year found that 65 percent of the respondents had accessed the river using a boat ramp, park or fishing pier within the previous month. More access points are in the works, such as the floating dock installed recently at Wayne B. Stevens Park in Ortega Farms.

Also in the works are design standards that will be critical as plans progress to develop the downtown riverfront.

The Downtown Investment Authority is accepting proposals for the redevelopment of the riverfront, including the Shipyards, after rejecting most of Jaguar owner Shahid Khan’s proposal late last year. In the meantime, Khan’s amphitheater project at EverBank Field, Daily’s Place, is expected to be complete by May with the first concert July 1.

After many years of planning and fundraising, the Cold War-era guided missile frigate USS Charles F. Adams is expected to arrive in May to begin its new life at the Shipyards as the only warship museum in Florida.

The Florida Times-Union’s riverfront property on Riverside Avenue is for sale, and Peter Rummell and Michael Munz are moving ahead with plans for a residential development on 30 acres on the Southbank.

Jimmy Orth, executive director of the St. Johns Riverkeeper, said the development that is going into downtown is the best type because it is redevelopment.

“The infrastructure is already there,” Orth said. “You’re not eliminating natural features that provide ecological benefits.”

And the new projects will provide more ways for people in Jacksonville to develop a relationship with the St. Johns, he said.

“People don’t use the river enough,” Orth said. “If they’re not using it they won’t care about it and feel passionate about it.”

River health still faces challenges

In the past decade, major progress has been made. For instance, JEA upgraded treatment plants and reduced nitrogen discharge by 1.6 million pounds a year.

But in older neighborhoods like San Marco and Riverside, stormwater from lawns and streets goes straight into the river, Orth said. And failing septic tanks around the city, including Miramar, are releasing fecal coliform into the river.

The latest challenges facing the river are chronicled in the Riverkeeper’s new documentary, “Troubled Waters” and the annual State of the River Report, issued by Jacksonville University and the University of North Florida.

The St. Johns is still polluted. Now the big problem is too many nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus – from fertilizer and not enough oxygen, ideal conditions for algae bloom that are harmful to humans and wildlife.

The water and sediment are contaminated with pesticides, hydrocarbons like polychlor biphenyl or PCB, from industry, and metals like copper, cadmium, nickel and arsenic, byproducts of coal-fire electric plants.

Microplastics have been added to the list of pollutants. The Riverkeeper and the Marine Science Research Institute at JU have launched a new effort to identify them.

Some of these problems will require millions of dollars and new governmental policies. Others can be achieved with low-tech solutions and behavior changes.

“Some of them are easy and effective,” Orth said. “Reduce or eliminate your lawn and replace it with native plants. Reduce or eliminate fertilizers and pesticides.”

Planting trees or creating bioswales, like the one in front of the San Marco Library, can help reduce stormwater runoff and filter pollution. Using water permeable paving, like the parking lot at Cummer Museum and Gardens, also can reduce runoff.

And then there’s the annual cleanup when thousands of volunteers who collect tons of trash and debris from along the river. The cleanup is part of River Month, established a decade ago by Mayor John Peyton.

Come out for annual river cleanup

This year’s river cleanup and celebration is from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, March 25, at sites around the city, including these in the urban core and historic districts:

  • Azalea Creek at Boone Park, 3700 Park St.
  • Fishweir Creek, Fishweir Park
  • Ray Ware Door Stop, 4048 Herschel St.
  • Historic Murray Hill, Murray Hill Library, 918 Edgewood Ave. S.
  • Memorial Park, 1620 Riverside Ave.
  • Northbank Riverwalk at Sydney J. Gefen Park, 505 Alfred duPont Place
  • Yacht Basin Park, 2941 St. Johns Ave.
  • Hollybrook Park, King Street at McCoys Creek Boulevard
  • Klutho Park, West 2nd St. at Boulevard St.
  • Balis Park, 1987 San Marco Blvd.
  • River Oaks Park at Craig Creek, 1000 River Oaks Rd.
  • Southside Park, 1513 LaSalle St.

By Lilla Ross
Resident Community News

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