State of the River

The St. Johns River runs through the heart of Jacksonville, providing our community with a natural competitive advantage that enhances our quality of life while and advancing our economy. ~ Our river enriches, soothes, inspires, strengthens and connects us. ~ It is critical that we respect, restore and protect our mighty St. Johns and all the benefits it provides.

Sadly, the recent hurricane had devastating consequences for so many people in the watershed of the St. Johns, as the waters of the river and its tributaries inundated low-lying areas throughout the region.

While we must join together to address the immediate needs of those affected by the storm, we must also use this as an opportunity to assess our vulnerabilities, learn from our mistakes, and rebuild and move forward with policies that will better protect our river and people in the future.

Investing in the restoration and fortification of the St. Johns and its tributaries will enhance Jacksonville’s appeal under normal conditions, while helping to protect us during extreme conditions.

Over the next eighty years, more than six million Floridians will be threatened by rising sea levels, according to a 2016 study. By 2030, $69 billion in property will be at risk from climatic changes, $15 billion of that from sea-level rise alone.

A recent University of Florida report found that the sea level is rising along Florida’s east coast six times faster than anticipated. Rising seas, warmer waters, stronger storms, flooding and saltwater intrusion is Florida’s new reality.

While we can’t put the brakes on rising waters, we do have a choice. We can fortify our rivers, beaches, and communities to better absorb the impact and implement policies that are more protective of our natural systems. Or, we can proceed with the status quo of unsustainable policies and projects that continue to put us and our waterways at more risk.

We can become more resilient by first acknowledging and addressing the mistakes of the past. Over the last century, we have filled in thousands of acres of wetlands, floodplains, springsheds, and forests throughout the watershed. We now know that these natural systems provide critical ecological services to humans and wildlife alike. For instance, wetlands absorb floodwaters, reduce storm surge, filter pollutants, provide habitat, and recharge our groundwater.

One of the most critical needs to right the wrongs of the past and to fortify our watershed is the restoration of the Ocklawaha River, the largest tributary of the St. Johns.

In 1968, the Rodman Dam was built as part of the failed Cross Florida Barge Canal project. Unfortunately, the damming of the Ocklawaha River flooded more than 7,500 acres of forested wetlands, sixteen miles of river and at least twenty springs, “The Lost Springs.”

As a result, the Ocklawaha River, the St. Johns River and Silver Springs have suffered for nearly forty-five years.

While state and federal agencies have studied and recommended Ocklawaha restoration for decades, the Rodman Dam continues to adversely impact some of Florida’s most important waterways and wildlife.

Breaching the Rodman Dam to restore the natural flow of the Ocklawaha and to free the lost springs would provide tremendous environmental and economic benefits while boosting our watershed’s health and resiliency.

We must diligently work to protect those natural systems that remain as well. That is why we continue to fight so hard for the proper implementation of Amendment 1, so those funds are being used to buy critical conservation lands that will help protect our river and protect us from future storms.

We can also utilize Low Impact Development practices that are designed to reduce impervious surfaces, retain natural hydrologic features, and reduce the footprint of developments. We can implement “green infrastructure” that utilizes trees, plants, green spaces, and natural systems to slow down, capture, and treat stormwater and reduce storm surges.

Read MoreBy Lisa Rinaman • Photos by Robert Storm Burks

Author: Arbus

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