Pollution in the St. Johns River (Pic by deadgirlsdontdance, via Flickr)

A week ago, the St. Johns River Water Management district released the results of a four-year study on the potential impacts of water withdrawals on the state’s largest river. Environmentalists are applauding the district for undertaking the project, but argue that many questions and legitimate concerns about the impact of water withdrawal on the St. Johns remain.

According to the report, which the district called its “most comprehensive and scientifically rigorous analysis” of the river yet, the St. Johns could serve as an alternative water supply without significantly damaging the environment. But the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the river’s longtime watchdog, argues that the study shouldn’t be viewed as a green light to proceed with withdrawals.

“While the study has its merits and has provided us with a greater understanding of the St. Johns River watershed, it certainly doesn’t adequately address all of the concerns and potential impacts associated with water withdrawals,” says the Riverkeeper’s Jimmy Orth. Despite some reports to the contrary, Lisa Rinaman, the newly minted St. Johns Riverkeeper, says that the report “does not set absolutes” and “does not authorize water withdrawals.”

In fact, Rinaman says, the report is flawed, and the Riverkeeper argues that more research is needed. According to some views of the study, “there are only negligible or minor impacts to withdrawing water,” Rinaman says. “We don’t agree with that, nor does the National Research Council.”

A 150-page peer review of the study conducted by the National Research Council (and commissioned by the water management district) revealed that the study has its limitations.

The report didn’t include the Ocklawaha River, the largest contributing tributary to the St Johns. According to Rinaman, the Ocklawaha contributes over one third of the freshwater flow to the St. Johns, making it a “substantial piece of this very dynamic equation.”

Another issue, Rinaman says, is that the study was designed to focus on issues underneath the control of the water management district — so issues like future sea level rise, urban growth, potential dredging or extreme events (like back-to-back droughts) were also not included.

“We believe it’s a good body of work, but … there are many questions that have not been answered,” says Rinaman.

In January, the water management district presented its report to the Jacksonville Waterways Commission, noting that the report “does not set absolutes” and “does not authorize water withdrawals.”  The district did note, however, that the report would “be used to guide District permit evaluations, planning and policy.”

Those companies looking to apply for a permit allowing water withdrawal from the St. Johns might use the report to defend their request, but the normal permitting process will still apply. Those requesting a permit will have to conduct their own additional analysis on potential effects of withdrawing from the St. Johns — using what’s been produced in the report, and filling in the gaps with additional science.

“[The report] is definitely not a green light to withdraw additional water,” Rinaman says.

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