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2012 River Report: Improvement, but continued threats affect St. Johns River

Joint News Release from UNF/JU:

The fifth annual State of the River Report on the lower basin of the St. Johns River shows improvement in some areas but continuing threats in several critical categories.

Dr. Lucinda Sonnenberg, Director, Millar Wilson Laboratory, Jacksonville University, discusses the fifth annual State of the River Report on the lower basin of the St. Johns River at a news conference at Jacksonville University Aug. 15.

The annual report was released Wednesday, Aug. 15, at a news conference at the Kurzius Pavilion on the banks of the river at Jacksonville University.  Since 2008, researchers from Jacksonville University, the University of North Florida and Valdosta State University have reviewed and analyzed data and literature about the river to determine the status and trends of various health indicators.  The report provides an important tool and resource for policymakers and the public to better understand and assess the health of the lower St. Johns River basin and make more informed decisions regarding its protection.  The researchers also hope the report will be used to educate school children and the public about the many facets to assessing and protecting their river. The analysis covers approximately 100 miles of the river from Welaka to its mouth at Mayport.

Since this is the fifth year the report has been compiled, it has provided researchers enough information to track emerging trends in the basin, according to Dr. Radha Pyati, director of the UNF Environmental Center and associate professor of chemistry. Pyati, the co-principal investigator for the report along with Dr. Dan McCarthy, director of the Marine Science Program at Jacksonville University, said this year’s report reveals improvements in some areas and includes new analysis of groundwater resources, toxicological effects on organisms, time trends in fisheries, and toxic chemical releases by local industries.

Dr. Lucinda Sonnenberg, director of the Millar Wilson Laboratory at Jacksonville University, discusses the 2012 River Report with First Coast News.

Despite some improvements, the legacy of past neglect and abuse of the lower St. Johns River basin remains, said Dr. Lucinda Sonnenberg, research professor of chemistry and the director of the Millar Wilson Laboratory for Chemical Research at Jacksonville University. “Through citizen efforts, environmental regulation and commitment from communities, the outlook for the health of the river is brighter than it was two decades ago. Whether we will realize this brighter outlook will depend on our future commitment to it,” Sonnenberg said.

The report, which was funded primarily by the City of Jacksonville’s Environmental Protection Board, highlights measurements in five broad areas: water quality, fisheries, aquatic life, contaminants and aquatic toxicology.

Dr. Radha Pyati, Director of the UNF Environmental Center, discusses the fifth annual State of the River Report on the lower basin of the St. Johns River at a news conference at Jacksonville University Aug. 15.

Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board chair Dr. Gary J. Bowers praised the report. “Ensuring that the general public has meaningful information about the health of our most prized natural asset continues to be very important to the board.  It is our hope that elected officials and other policy makers will also find the report to be a useful tool as they consider protection and restoration efforts that might impact the river’s health,” he said.

Improvements and deteriorating conditions were noted in several categories. No category had more “unsatisfactory” labels than water quality, a condition that has existed since the first report was issued in 2008. Water quality consists of such measurements as dissolved oxygen, nutrients, turbidity, algal blooms, bacteria and metals. All of these subcategories continue to receive an “unsatisfactory” label by the researchers based on their analysis.

Although receiving an overall unsatisfactory rating, water quality showed some improvements in turbidity, bacteria and metals indicating that the trend may be improving.

The researchers emphasized that broad generalities about the lower basin of the St. Johns River are difficult to make because conditions may vary, especially in tributaries. For example, dissolved oxygen, essential to aquatic life, is adequate in the main parts of the river but continues to be low in some tributaries.

Similarly while nutrient levels, which contribute to algal blooms, have remained stable or decreased slightly in the river, they are still high in some small creeks. Researchers believe if the nutrient levels continue to decline, the algal blooms that have been a problem the past few years, could actually diminish in the future.

Dr. Radha Pyati (foreground), Director of the UNF Environmental Center, and Dr. Lucinda Sonnenberg (background), Director, Millar Wilson Laboratory, Jacksonville University, both talk with the media after the fifth annual State of the River Report on the lower basin of the St. Johns River was released at a news conference at JU Aug. 15.

In other broad categories, the river received decidedly better rankings. In the fisheries category, satisfactory rankings were given for five different types of fish. There is little evidence of overfishing of finfish, shrimp or stone crabs in the river. Similarly in aquatic life, endangered and threatened species such as manatees, wood storks and bald eagles are generally faring well, but continued loss of habitat makes them vulnerable. Researchers are also concerned that recent droughts resulting in higher salinity levels have adversely affected river grasses, an essential habitat for many forms of aquatic life. This habitat loss can adversely affect many species in the river, researchers concluded.

Unfortunately, species that do not belong in the river are on the rise, with 64 nonnative species that can possibly threaten their natural counterparts in the river. Organisms that dwell in the river bed such as clams, snails, insects and shrimp are abundant, but tend toward the more pollution-tolerant types.

In the final category, contaminants, the lower basin received unsatisfactory marks in four of five subcategories. Sediment concentrations of pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), metals and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were given unsatisfactory levels as they have for the past five years based on their impact on aquatic organisms.

Researchers said metals and chemicals associated with petroleum, PAHs, are the most important contaminants that were evaluated and are present in some parts of the riverbed at levels that stress the organisms that live there. Other banned contaminants such as DDT and PCBs, remain in the sediment in many places but at less toxic levels, researchers said. Overall, the volume of chemicals released into the air by industries in the basin region has declined in the last decade while discharges into the river have remained about the same. Industrial emissions of mercury have declined in the last decade which supports statewide efforts to reduce mercury levels in fish.

Pyati said although much remains to be accomplished in improving the overall quality of the St. Johns River, some progress has been made.

“The report shows some conditions stabilizing or even improving; at the same time, we have to remain watchful for developments that harm the river’s health,” she concluded.

The river report will be one of the subjects discussed at the Environmental Symposium, scheduled for Friday, Aug. 17, at UNF’s University Center. The symposium is being organized by the city’s Environmental Protection Board.

 For more information and to view the full report, visit www.SJRreport.com.