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

Earlier this month, a representative for the St. Johns River Water Management District gave a presentation to the Jacksonville Waterways Commission on a study analyzing water withdrawals from the river. The study, which will next be presented to the city’s Environmental Protection Board, aims to demonstrate how potential water withdrawals could impact Jacksonville. One environmental group worries that the study doesn’t fully address all of the problems.

The Riverkeeper, which acts as a watchdog for the St. Johns, has been one of the most vocal opponents of water withdrawal projects in the river, arguing that the risks outweigh the benefits. One of the projects the group specifically opposed was a proposal to remove hundreds of millions of gallons of water from the St. Johns and Ocklawaha Rivers.

Though the Riverkeeper filed an administrative challenge to halt the project, they were ultimately unsuccessful — and Seminole County was granted a permit that allows them to remove 5.5 million gallons of water per day from the St. Johns. According to the Riverkeeper’s Neil Armingeon, the plant design will ultimately allow the county to remove 55 million gallons a day.

Though they were unsuccessful in legally challenging the permit, the opposition stirred up by the project ultimately led to the district’s recently released water withdrawal study, a comprehensive analysis of the potential ecological impacts of water removal projects on the health of the St. Johns.

In its review of the study, the Riverkeeper notes that there are “critical issues” not addressed, such as “future sea level rises and increased stormwater runoff” and water quality degradation from future population growth and increases in pollution due to urban development. Notes the Riverkeeper’s review, “these issues singularly, or in combination, could result in greater negative impacts to the river than would be experienced from water withdrawals.”

The National Research Council also reviewed the study, commending it as a helpful tool for the district, but adding that “additional analyses are needed.” The council recommends that the study be used in conjunction with previous water supply studies that focused on the potential impacts of groundwater withdrawals on natural vegetation.

As Florida’s largest river, the St. Johns is an important waterbody in both a fiscal and environmental sense. Thousands of homes and business along the river rely on its health for waterfront real estate prices, and countless marinas and water sports businesses depend on it for their bottom line. But large-scale algal blooms (which are noxious and ugly) threaten to harm both the businesses that rely on it and the marine life that call the river home.

According to the district’s study, “water withdrawals may not worsen conditions, but clearly they will not improve conditions in the river.”

The district is slated to make a presentation regarding its study during the Feb. 14 meeting of the Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board.

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