1.4. Early environmental management (1800-1970s)

The history of environmental management of the St. Johns River watershed, and water resources in Florida, is a complex, convoluted, but relatively short history. Major milestones in environmental management in Florida have taken place within the last century, with much of the story occurring during our living memory (Table 1.1 and Appendix 1.4.1). The story of water management in Florida unfolds as a tale of lessons learned, a shift from reigning to restoring, from consuming to conserving.

Noticeable, but small-scale changes occurred in the St. Johns River Basin during pre-Columbian times, when the Timucua Indians occupied northeast Florida (Milanich 1998). It was not until the Colonial Period, particularly during the British occupation in the late 1700s, that the environment experienced large-scale alterations. Such landscape modifications as the conversion of wetlands to agriculture and the clearing of forests for timber surged again in the mid-1800s after Florida was granted statehood (Davis and Arsenault 2005). First tourists, and then developers and agricultural interests, were enticed to the rich and largely unexploited resource that was early Florida (Blake 1980). In northeast Florida, most of the earliest changes to the landscape of the LSJRB were utilitarian in purpose, but the late 1800s and early 1900s were fraught with changes driven by the profitable tourist industry. Tourists were fascinated with promotional accounts describing this land of eternal summer, filled with wild botanicals and beguiling beasts (Miller 1998). The growing village of Jacksonville became the initial portal to Florida, and a thriving tourist industry flourished as steamboats began to shuttle tourists up the St. Johns River. By 1875, Jacksonville was the most important town in Florida (Blake 1980). By the early 1900s, the population of northeast Florida was increasing at a slow, steady rate (see Figure 1.5).

Figure 1.5
Figure 1.5. Population of northeast Florida from the time Florida was granted statehood to the 2010 U.S. Census including future population projections to 2030. (“Northeast Florida” includes population counts from Clay, Duval, Flagler, Putnam, and St. Johns counties. Sources: Population counts for the years 1850‑1900 were provided by Miller 1998. Counts from 1900‑1990 were extracted from Forstall 1995, and 2000 and 2010 counts from the USCB. (USCB 2000; USCB 2010) Note: U.S. Census data were not available for Flagler County in 1900 and 1910. Population estimates for 2020 and 2030 were extracted from the Demographic Estimating Conference Database (EDR 2015), updated August 2014.

Impacts to the environment mirrored the steady population growth during the early 1900s. Entrepreneurs, investors, and government officials in Florida at this time were thoroughly focused on the drainage and redirection of water through engineering works (Blake 1980). Near Jacksonville, the federal government began decades of projects to dredge and straighten the St. Johns River in order to improve navigation (Monroe and Hong 2018).

The immigration of new settlers was moderate during Florida’s first century as a state because the region still proved inhospitable to the unadventurous. Not only was the region full of irritating, disease-carrying mosquitoes, Florida was just too hot and humid. That changed when air conditioners for residential use became affordable and widespread after WWII (Davis and Arsenault 2005). Florida’s population exploded around the 1950s and has continued to skyrocket ever since (Figure 1.5; USCB 2000).

By the 1960s, a century of topographical tinkering was taking its toll. Ecosystems across Florida were beginning to show signs of stress. Sinkholes emerged in Central Florida (the Upper Basin of the St. Johns River) indicating a serious decline in the water table (SJRWMD 2010a). Flooding, particularly during storm events, was destructive and devastating. Loss of wetlands peaked during this time, as wet areas were rapidly converted to agriculture or urban land uses (Meindl 2005). Major projects, such as the Kissimmee Canal and Cross Florida Barge Canal, continued into the 1960s, but public opposition against such projects was mounting (Purdum 2002).

The 1960s marked a decisive period in the history of environmental protection. Increasingly, the American public concerned itself with “quality of life” issues, such as air and water pollution, the ability to visit scenic areas, and the dangers posed by pesticides (Merchant 2007). In Florida, growing concerns about the disappearance of ecologically fragile rivers, wetlands, and coastlines galvanized an environmental movement. Groups like the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and Florida Defenders of the Environment lobbied against the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, Everglades Jetport, and other major projects. In a state characterized by rampant development, there was no shortage of environmental issues in need of attention. From this time forward, policy makers and the public began to think more about the effects of their actions on the environment (White 2010).

This groundswell of support for environmental protection also encouraged the passage of important environmental laws.  During the early 1970s, the federal and state governments passed a number of significant pieces of environmental legislation (see Table 1.1 and Appendix 1.4.1). The laws of this era, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), Endangered Species Act (1973), and Clean Water Act (1972 and 1977) displayed a change in our approach to resource use and our attitudes regarding ecosystems, nature, and the environment (Merchant 2007).

The Clean Water Act (CWA) (1972 and 1977) has been one of the most influential pieces of legislation from the 1970s. The CWA addressed key elements that affect the long-term health of the nation’s rivers and streams. The CWA requires states to submit a list of their “impaired” (polluted) waters to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) every two years, or the EPA will develop the list for them. States determine impairment primarily by assessing whether waterbodies maintain certain categories of use, e.g., fishable and swimmable. Whether a use is impacted or not is typically based on whether the water body meets specific chemical and biological standards or exhibits safety risks to people. Once a state has an approved or “verified 303(d)” list of impaired waters, it must develop a management plan to address the issues that are causing the impairment. This process of identifying and improving impaired waters through the CWA has played a major role in modern environmental management from the 1980s through the 2000s.

At the state level, a devastating drought in 1970-71 contributed to already growing concerns about the use of water.  Consequently, attitudes toward water among the public and state officials began to shift from control and consumption to conservation (Purdum 2002; White 2010). In 1972, the Florida Legislature passed the Florida Water Resources Act, which created regional water management districts and established a permitting system for allocating water use. The Legislature also passed the Environmental Land and Water Management Act (1972) in order to address areas of critical concern. Other important legislation included the Florida Comprehensive Planning Act and the Land Conservation Act. These measures, though often challenged in later years, marked important milestones in Florida’s history of environmental protection (Purdum 2002; White 2010).

Table 1.1 Graphic timeline of selected environmental milestones, Lower St. Johns River Basin. (See a detailed timeline of important environmental milestones for the Lower St. Johns River Basin in Appendix 1.4.1.).
Graphic timeline of selected environmental milestones, Lower St. Johns River Basin.

Water Quality, Fisheries, Aquatic Life, & Contaminants