I. What is the State of the River Report?
The State of the River Report summarizes the “health” of the Lower St. Johns River Basin (LSJRB). By “health,” the authors are referring to factors that affect human well-being, recreation, the economy, and the environment. These aspects of the river basin’s health include:
- Water quality in the St. Johns River and the streams and creeks that flow into the river in northeast Florida;
- The condition of fish, crab, and shrimp populations in the area;
- Whether river, swamps, and marshes support thriving populations of plants and animals, while also providing economic, recreational, and health benefits for the people who live in northeast Florida.
The State of the River Report includes a “Highlights” chapter on chemicals known as Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Used to make non-stick coatings, fire-fighting foam, textiles, and other products, PFASs are toxic to humans and harmful to the environment. This chapter highlights what we know and what we need to know about PFAS (see State of the River Report Highlights).
Finally, the State of the River Report includes valuable guidance for teachers in grades K-12. Such guidance includes:
- Lesson plans on the natural history and status of bald eagles, wood storks, manatees, and other animals;
- Lesson plans on topics like aquatic health, aquatic organisms, and natural communities;
- Lesson plans on the history of the St. Johns River, and especially the people who lived along the river. (See Lesson Plans online at http://www.sjrreport.com)
The authors of the State of the River Report include researchers from Jacksonville University, the University of North Florida, Florida Southern College, and West Chester University (in Pennsylvania). The entire State of the River Report is available online at http://www.sjrreport.com, and report highlights are available in a brochure.
II. What are the Most Important Conclusions from the State of the River Report?
- Water quality in the main part of the St. Johns River in northeast Florida is generally suitable for boating, fishing, and other forms of recreation (see State of the River Report Section 2).
- There are plenty of popular species of fish, including redfish (“red drum”), trout (“spotted seatrout”), mullet (“striped mullet”), and other species. There is uncertainty about populations of some fish, such as largemouth bass and catfish (see State of the River Report Section 3).
- Populations of some well-known wild animals, such as manatees, bald eagles, and wood storks appear to be healthy (see State of the River Report Section 4).
- Populations of manatees, while currently healthy in the LSJRB, face potential future threats. Among other things dredging and sea level rise are likely to increase salinity in the Lower St. Johns River, and reduce the submerged aquatic vegetation needed for manatees to survive (see State of the River Report Section 4.4). It should also be noted that manatee populations in the Indian River Lagoon have declined sharply in the last year due to the effects of algal blooms on submerged aquatic vegetation (see State of the River Report Section 4.4).
- There are reasons to be concerned about the health of the river:
- Water quality in some of the tributaries is too poor to allow the safe consumption of fish or crabs from these streams, or to allow swimming (see State of the River Report Section 2).
- Pollution—especially in the tributaries—threatens human health, the economy, and the ecosystems that support plants, animals and recreation. Run-off from roads, residential and commercial development, failing septic tanks, and agriculture, are major contributors to the pollution in the LSJRB. Contamination by metals, pesticides, and PCBs also remains a serious concern (see State of the River Report Sections 2 and 5).
- Wetlands in the region are threatened. Urban development and agriculture contribute to the loss of valuable swamps, marshes and other wetlands (see State of the River Report Section 4.2).
- A variety of factors (including sea level rise) have contributed to an increase in salinity in some locations and caused a decrease in submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). Particular areas where SAVs have decreased include northern portions of the LSJRB, especially in Duval County, northern Clay County, and northern parts of St. Johns County. SAVs have also decreased south of Palatka and Crescent Lake. In these areas, submerged seagrasses and other vegetation are below levels desired to support fisheries, and particularly manatees. SAVs also prevent erosion and provide flood protection (see State of the River Report Section 4.1).
- Dredging of the river will likely increase salinity in some locations and reduce submerged aquatic vegetation in parts of the LSJRB (USACE 2014A).
- Dredging of the river could increase water levels in a 100-year storm surge by several inches in the mainstem of the river (Monroe and Hong 2018).
- Local governments and partnering state agencies have improved water quality by funding the replacement of failing septic tanks, improving wastewater treatment plants, and conducting other measures to reduce the flow of pollutants into waterways (Crooks 2004; Bauerlein 2021a; State of the River Report Section 2). For a discussion of laws and legislation affecting such measures (see State of the River Report Section 1.5). Recently, the governor of Florida announced a $6 million plan to phase out failing septic tanks in the Jacksonville region (Bauerlein 2021a).
III. What Does the St. Johns River Mean for You?
The St. Johns River is vital to the people, animals, and plants that live in northeast and east-central Florida. Since the early 1900s, the St. Johns River has made Jacksonville one of the largest, most vibrant cities in Florida. Today, the river supports the economy through the Port of Jacksonville and the businesses, schools, and other agencies that have located here. The river also draws thousands of boaters, fishermen, paddlers, and others who enjoy recreation on the water. As Jacksonville University marine biologist Quinton White notes, “There are so many outstanding opportunities to enjoy the river that there really isn’t a good excuse not to” (White 2015a).
Here are just a few things the St. Johns River means for the general public.
Boaters have always enjoyed the St. Johns River. Today, one can operate motorboats, sailboats, kayaks, paddleboards, and other craft on the St. Johns and many of its tributaries. However, anyone boating on the river should remember the following guidelines from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC):
- Obtain the proper boating license, depending upon your age. According to the FWC, “For anyone born on or after January 1, 1988, who will be operating a boat in Florida waters with an engine of ten (10) horsepower or more, the law requires them to complete an approved boating safety course and obtain a Florida Boating Safety ID Card.” See https://myfwc.com/license/boating-navigation/.
- Watch the weather forecast for storms, and pay attention to tides. See the National Weather Service Weather Activity Planner at https://forecast.weather.gov/wxplanner.php?site=jax (FWC 2018a).
- Provide a life jacket for every adult in a boat, and wear life jackets properly. For vessels under 16 feet, all children younger than six years old must wear an approved life jacket (FWC 2018a).
- Avoid mixing alcohol and boating.
- All boats are required to carry certain kinds of safety equipment. This may include fire extinguishers, distress signals, and other devices, depending upon the size and configuration of a vessel. Visit https://myfwc.com/boating/safety-education/ for all the information you need on boater safety (FWC 2018a).
- Observe posted rules at all times, including no wake zones.
- Pay attention to rules regarding protection of manatees and dolphins. For more information on manatees, see https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/manatee/protection-zones/. Please exercise caution around dolphins. Never feed dolphins, and if fishing, avoid releasing your catch or throwing out leftover bait near dolphins. For information on proper behavior around dolphins, see https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/mammals/aquatic/dolphin/.
- Pay attention to other boaters, and slow down to reduce your wake if you are near kayakers or other small boats.
- Exercise special care if boating with pets. Provide plenty of water and a place in the shade for your pets, and consider a life vest for your pet. For more information on boating with pets, see https://www.formulaboats.com/blog/boating-with-pets/.
- Please do not litter.
Special Boating Rules for the St. Johns River Tributaries
- Avoid fishing and/or swimming in polluted tributaries. Some of the creeks that flow into the St. Johns River are badly polluted with human waste, metals, pesticides, and other materials that can sicken humans. The following is a list of selected creeks that are especially polluted and considered “impaired” under existing laws. Please exercise caution around these tributaries. The reason these streams are designated as “impaired,” is listed as well:
- Cedar River, Freshwater Segment (Escherichia coli);
- Dunn Creek, Marine Segment (Enterococci);
- Goodbys Creek, Freshwater Segment (Iron);
- Julington Creek, Freshwater Segment (Fecal Coliform);
- Moncrief Creek, Marine Segment (Copper and Iron);
- Moncrief Creek, Freshwater Segment (Iron);
- Ortega River, Freshwater Segment (Escherichia coli);
- Pottsburg Creek, Marine Segment (Iron and Nutrients);
- Trout River, Upper Reach (E-Coli, Lead). (For details on the tributaries, see especially State of the River Report Sections 1.5 and 2.7.)
- Avoid boating or swimming near algae blooms. In some years, excessive storm water run-off and wastewater provide large amounts of nutrients that cause algae to grow and “bloom” in the river. Some kinds of algae are toxic, threatening human health, killing fish, and disrupting ecosystems. (For detail on algae blooms, see State of the River Report Section 2.4.)
- Be cautious around alligators and other potentially dangerous animals. During most of the year, alligators pose little threat to humans. However, you should always give alligators plenty of room, especially in the spring and summer mating season (Fenton 2020). Never feed alligators and always keep your pets on a leash if you are walking near bodies of water with alligators. Never swim near alligators and avoid swimming at dawn, dusk, or night.
Fishing has always been popular in the St. Johns River and the nearby waterways. Original inhabitants ate oysters, shrimp, and fish as a normal part of their diet, and fishing has remained important ever since, even if it no longer represents a majority of our diet (White 2015b).
General Guidelines about Fishing
- There are plenty of popular species of fish in the St. Johns River and in some of its tributaries. Populations of redfish (“red drum”), trout (“spotted seatrout”), and mullet (“striped mullet”) are healthy. In addition, there are a number of species of fish that can be caught offshore, some of which rely upon the St. Johns River and its marshes as a nursery (see State of the River Report Section 3). Fish caught in the river or offshore are safe to eat, within limits (see 4 below).
- You must obtain the proper license to fish in the St. Johns River, its estuary, or just offshore. See https://myfwc.com/license/ (FWC 2018b).
- Avoid fishing in some of the polluted tributaries. Pay attention to all posted warnings about fishing in a particular area.
- Be careful about how much fish you eat. While fish is a welcome addition to most diets, some people should be cautious about consuming too much fish. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Department of Health, and Florida Department of Environmental Protection work jointly to determine if certain species of fish pose a threat to health due to contamination. If so, they will issue an advisory about fish consumption. For more information on this, see http://www.floridahealth.gov/programs-and-services/prevention/healthy-weight/nutrition/seafood-consumption/fish-advisories-page.html. For warnings about consuming fish from specific bodies of water in the Lower St. Johns River Basin, see https://dchpexternalapps.doh.state.fl.us/fishadvisory/.
- Avoid fishing in areas with algae blooms.
Please exercise extreme caution before swimming in the St. Johns River. The currents are strong, and thunderstorms, winds, and tides can also make swimming dangerous. The water in the river is also dark and opaque, stained with the organic matter and sediments from the many streams, wetlands, and springs that feed the St. Johns. Debris has also accumulated in the river, including abandoned crab pots, fishing equipment, and litter. All of these factors make swimming in the river potentially hazardous. The presence of potentially toxic blue-green algae also poses a health threat to swimmers. Avoid swimming in or near water that is “scummy,” or colored green or reddish-brown, and avoid swimming in the tributaries. Despite these hazards, some people do swim in the St. Johns River. For more on this, see (Woods 2018) https://www.jacksonville.com/news/20180327/mark-woods-for-spring-break-he-swam-st-johns-river.
Finally, please note that blue-green algae are also hazardous to pets and livestock. Pets and livestock should not be allowed to drink from or swim in water that is foamy or “scummy,” likely signs of blue-green algae. For more on the dangers of blue-green algae to animals, see http://myfwc.com/research/wildlife/health/other-wildlife/cyanobacteria/.
IV. How Can You Get Involved with the St. Johns River?
Members of the general public can get involved with the St. Johns River in lots of ways. In addition to boating, fishing, and generally enjoying the river, one can join clubs, volunteer with local groups, and find new ways to appreciate the river and its surroundings. Links to get started include:
Hiking, Volunteering, and Other Outdoor Activities:
- City of Jacksonville, https://www.coj.net/departments/parks-and-recreation
- Duval Audubon Society, http://www.duvalaudubon.org/
- St. Johns Riverkeeper, https://www.stjohnsriverkeeper.org/
- Sierra Club, Northeast Florida Group, https://www.sierraclub.org/florida/northeast-florida
- Timucuan Parks Foundation, https://www.timucuanparks.org/about-us/
Volunteering and Community Service through Government Agencies and Universities:
- City of Jacksonville, Clean It Up, Green It Up, https://www.coj.net/departments/neighborhoods/neighborhood-services-office/clean-it-up-green-it-up/events/all-events/international-coastal-cleanup;
- Florida Department of Environmental Protection, https://floridadep.gov/search/site/volunteer;
- Fort Caroline National Memorial/Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve, https://www.nps.gov/timu/learn/historyculture/foca.htm;
- Jacksonville University, Marine Science Research Institute, https://www.ju.edu/msri/;
- St. Johns River Water Management District, https://www.sjrwmd.com/;
- The University of North Florida, Institute of Environmental Research and Education, https://www.unf.edu/ecenter/.
Reporting a Problem:
- Report Algal Blooms: Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) at 855-305-3903. You can also contact the FDEP at https://floridadep.gov/AlgalBloom.
- Report Chemical Spills: City of Jacksonville at https://www.coj.net/departments/neighborhoods/environmental-quality.aspx, or at 904-630-2489.
- Report Fish Kills: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) at 800-636-0511. Also, you can access the Fish Kills reporting system at https://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/health/fish-kills-hotline/.
- Questions about Fish and Animals: For any questions about animals, including questions about injured, stranded or dead animals, call one of the numbers for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, https://myfwc.com/contact/incident-reporting/.
- Report Pollution in Streams:
- Duval County Health Department, Florida Department of Health (DOH), http://www.floridahealth.gov/search/search.cgi?zoom_query=reporting+pollution&zoom_cat%5B%5D=0;
- Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), https://floridadep.gov/dle/oer.
- Report Sewage Overflows/Spills: JEA, at https://www.jea.com/About/.
- Report Pollution Issues, Potential Violations of Law: Contact the St. Johns Riverkeeper, https://www.stjohnsriverkeeper.org/take-action/report/.
Contacting your City Councilmember about the River:
V. How Can You Improve the Health of the St. Johns River and its Tributaries?