Just a day after a panel of scientists, experts and politicians met in a public forum to address the health of the St. Johns River, the annual State of the River Report for the Lower St. Johns River Basin was released.
The report, which is a collaborative effort between acadmic researchers at the University of North Florida, Jacksonville University and Valdosta State University, details information on the river’s water quality, aquatic life and fisheries. The lower basin of the river is found in Northeast Florida, and includes portions of nine counties, including Duval, Putnam, Flagler and St. Johns. According to the report, the LSJRB “covers a 1.8 million-acre drainage area, extends 101 miles in length, and has a surface area of water approximately equal to 115 square miles.”
The 194-page report, which was funded by the Environmental Protection Board of the City of Jacksonville and the River Branch Foundation, delves into the specifics of how river pollution is monitored.
Total Maximum Daily Load provisions (or TMDLs) of the Clean Water Act were made enforcable after a 1999 lawsuit against the EPA. TMDLs determine how much pollution can be discharged by a particular source without further endangering the river’s health. According to the report, “The 2009 final verified list of LSJR impairments requiring TMDLs consists of a total of 123 impairments in 97 water bodies or segments of water bodies. … These impaired statuses are due primarily to unsatisfactory levels of mercury, dissolved oxygen, fecal coliform, and nutrients.”
After TMDLs have been adopted, Basin Management Action Plans must then be implemented, which typically take 18-24 months. The report states that several TMDLs have been adopted for the lower St. Johns. A chart included in the report further details implementation of the Action Plans, and shows Tampa Bay Tributaries, Springs Coast, the upstream of Wekiva and Munson Slough as the first waterways where standards are to be enforced.
Though the report mostly consists of scientific jargon and is overwhelming at best, it does seem to corroborate what many have said regarding the culprits of recent algal bloosm and fish kills:
The water quality of each tributary is strongly impacted by both the land use surrounding the tributary and the nature and extent of human impact. Thus, the tributaries of the LSJR vary in water quality impacts from agricultural to industrial and from urban to suburban to rural. Often, different parts of the same tributary will have changes in water quality that reflect changes in land use, industry and population along it.”
One of the St. Johns’ most notable algal blooms, dubbed “The Green Monster” is found in Rice Creek, in the same general area that paper giant Georgia-Pacific discharges its wastewater.
The report describes Rice Creek as an area of “relatively elevated levels of nitrogen” but that currently, no TMDLs have been established there. The report also notes that the creek has other problems: “Recently, Rice Creek has been identified as being impaired for dioxin and the COJ is working with Georgia Pacific to address this issue.”
The report further details levels of Polyaromatic hydrocarbon toxicity in the area: “In … the western tributaries, anthracene was the largest single contributor to PAH toxicity, while other PAHs exerted similar, low-level effects. … Within [this area,] the highest levels for anthracene were found in Rice Creek in 2000-2003, with an average concentration nearly ten times the anthracene PEL (89 ppm).”
According to an EPA Fact Sheet, anthracene is a chemical used in the production of dyes, plastics and pesticides and can be exposed to humans through contact with skin or inhalation: Once in your body, the PAHs can spread and target fat tissues. Target organs include the kidney, liver and fat.”
The report reveals what many have already known about the culprits behind algal blooms and fish kills. Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, along with dissolved oxygen levels, form a lethal cocktail for the river’s aquatic life:
Humans add to the naturally occurring phosphorus in aquatic systems. In Florida, phosphorus is mined quite extensively, and is used in fertilizers, commercial cleaners and detergents, animal feeds, and in water treatment, among other purposes. Runoff can result in the addition of phosphorus into local waterways. … Excessive total nitrogen in a system can have severe impacts on the community structure. Nitrogen can markedly alter the community distribution of phytoplankton. Cyanobacteria, for example, are capable of nitrogen fixation (converting inert nitrogen to reactive nitrogen), which allows them to grow rapidly, thus out-competing other species when inorganic nitrogen levels are low (Smith 1983). Repetitive nitrogen and phosphorus overloading can be detrimental to aquatic systems.
The report does say that efforts made in the mid-’90s to upgrade wastewater treatment plants were successful for a time, but might not be any longer: ”Mean total phosphorus concentrations in the LSJR appear to have been fairly stable from 1993 to 2007, possibly reflecting in part the point source reduction efforts; however, in the past two years levels have increased.”
The report clearly states what must be done in its Future Outlook section: “Phosphorus and nitrogen inputs from multiple sources should be reduced.”
Now it’s up to the EPA to implement its numeric nutrient standards for point-sources like Georiga-Pacific and JEA. That, coupled with the implementation of TMDL standards, could make for serious gains in the health of the river and those that call it home.