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Seventh annual St. Johns River Report finds cause for optimism, concern

The seventh annual State of the River Report on the lower St. Johns River Basin leaves reason for optimism for the waterway, but with some caveats, including concerns about increased salinity, encroachment of non-native species, and wetland changes that may affect marine life and habitat.

Dr. Lucinda Sonnenberg

“By comparison to 20 to 30 years ago, there is no doubt we have made significant progress toward a healthier St. Johns River,” said Dr. Lucinda Sonnenberg, director of the Millar Wilson Laboratory for Chemical Research and research professor of chemistry at Jacksonville University. “However, there are new concerns emerging, some old problems remain, and cumulative impacts will continue to stress our river. In addition, if we are to keep on our path to a better St. Johns, we must keep an eye to emerging concerns such as sea level rise, changes in land use and increasing impacts with regional growth.”

On the positive side, according to the researchers, the presence of nutrients and metals in the river has continued to decline, and fisheries and threatened species are generally stable. Additionally, air emissions of toxic chemicals are down in the region, and turbidity—a key test of water quality—has also declined in the last few years.

However, new data shows that shifts in wetland coverage and quality are continuing to affect nurseries, habitat and flood control. As well, non-native species continue to be a problem, including emerging concerns of lionfish and Muscovy ducks.

In their first report on the river’s salinity, researchers detected increased levels , which may lead to a shift southward in the river of certain species of plant and animal life, and a disturbance in the life cycles of some species. Hardwood swamps and underwater plant life between the Fuller Warren and Buckman bridges are particularly vulnerable to impact from the higher salinity.

“The Lower St. Johns River Basin has long been recognized as a treasured watershed, providing enormous ecological, recreational, socioeconomic and aesthetic benefits,” said Dr. Radha Pyati, chair and associate professor of chemistry at the University of North Florida. “Although the river is healthy in many ways, important problems, such as algal blooms, persist. Also, salinity conditions are worsening over the long term and require careful observation in the near future.”

The River Report and a brochure, a quick reference guide on river health and ways the public can help the river, will be available Thursday, July 31, at www.sjrreport.com. A presentation by Pyati and Sonnenberg on the findings will be made Friday, Aug. 15, at the Opening Session of the 2014 Environmental Symposium, titled “Moving Toward a Clean, Green City,” scheduled for the Adam W. Herbert University Center, 12000 Alumni Drive, in the Grand Banquet Hall on the UNF campus.

The annual symposium, which runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is sponsored by the Environmental Protection Board of the City of Jacksonville and the UNF Environmental Center, brings together members of the community to interact with the regular agencies responsible for developing and implementing environmental policy.

The State of the River Report is a collaboration among UNF, JU and Valdosta State University and is supported by the Environmental Protection Board. UNF River Report team members include Pyati, Dr. Stuart Chalk, associate professor of chemistry; Dr. Brian Zoellner, assistant professor and Graduate Program director; and Dr. Peter Bacopoulos, assistant professor of civil engineering. JU team members include Sonnenberg; Dr. Nisse Goldberg, associate professor of biology/marine science; Dr. Gerard Pinto, research scientist; and Kim Mann,marine science graduate student. The Valdosta State University team member is Dr. Gretchen Bielmyer, associate professor of biology.

The Marine Science Research Institute at Jacksonville University is the premier biological and environmental research and education facility on the St. Johns River. The two-story, 32,000-square-foot “certified-green” building has classrooms, laboratories, offices for the St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and areas for teaching Duval County public school students. For more information, visit www.ju.edu/msri.

The mission of the Environmental Center at UNF, founded in 2004, is to establish, develop and support cross-disciplinary education and research related to the environment. The center fosters programs for students, faculty and staff to pursue environmental activities through academics, research and extracurricular activities. For more information, visit http://www.unf.edu/ecenter/.