Shared from the 11/1/2020 The Florida Times-Union eEdition



Lisa Rinaman, St. Johns Riverkeeper, protects Jacksonville’s most valuable natural asset

Lisa Rinaman has turned a passion for policy and a love of the St. Johns River into a career as the St. Johns Riverkeeper.

She is one of the most visible advocates for the river. Since she leads a nonprofit without government funding, she has the freedom to speak bluntly about protecting Jacksonville’s most valuable natural asset.

She was interviewed by Editorial Page Editor Editor Mike Clark.

How would you rate Downtown with 1 being dead and 10 being like Austin or Nashville?

I would say 8 1/2. We have really come a long way with pockets of incredible opportunity on the waterfront as well as nightlife and restaurants. We’re not quite there yet. One of the big opportunities we’re missing are those waterfront gathering places. We have Metro Park but it’s in flux and being threatened. The Landing was a public space on the river and it was not maintained for the longest time and now it’s a vacant lot. It has come a long way in the 20-plus years I’ve been here. It has that potential to be a 10 in the near future if we put all of energy into making that happen.


St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman raises alarms about threats to the health of the river. BOB SELF


The lift station for the Yankee Lake Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility was targeted by several cities that wanted its water. St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman was concerned about the impact on the health of the St. Johns River. BOB MACK/FLORIDA TIMES-UNION

I’m not sure you can give a grade to the river. The more I learn about it the more complicated it is. What is your overall assessment of the pluses and the challenges?

It is very difficult to give the river a grade because it is so complex. While it can look beautiful on a sunny day, it’s gorgeous, there are some challenges you can’t see that impact its overall health such as salt water intrusion. We were fishing on Julington Creek and caught flounder. There are barnacles on your dock post. We’re seeing more salt water, which is not good for the estuary. There is a delicate balance of salt and fresh water that damages your wetlands, your grasses and submerged trees that are biofilters of the river. So the river is having a harder time dealing with pollution due to impacts upstream. While we’ve made progress on improving the health of the St. Johns, that progress is being undermined by sea level rise, climate change and uncontrolled growth throughout the 8,800 square mile watershed. Using more water undermines fresh water sources.

You used the word “estuary” because the river Downtown is more accurately described as an estuary than a river. At what point does it turn into a river? It is so wide here.

Actually south of Palatka. The St. Johns River over the last 100 miles is an estuary. So that estuary is of critical importance to all of the fish that live in the St. Johns. Sometimes people forget that fact. It is such a mighty river. There is so much happening right here in Jacksonville. Every day there are 15 billion gallons of salt water trying to come in on the tide. There is about 5 billion gallons of fresh water trying to get out. All of that meets in the Duval County area.

It’s critically important to keep that balance but we’re seeing an undermining of that fresh-salt water balance due to dredging, due to sea level rise and overuse of the aquifer in Central Florida that is pulling out the fresh water. While the river looks the same, the water chemistry is different. We’re starting to see dead trees, we call them ghost trees, in Goodby’s Creek and Julington Creek because salt water has a huge impact on the health of the river.

Then we have to look at the tributaries. While it’s safe to swim in the river, it’s not always safe to swim in the tributaries. There are warning signs at Hogans Creek not to eat the fish.

Most of the tributaries in Duval County are impaired, polluted. And there are times of more pollution due to flooding. When we have a flood you see more sewage going in the river, you see septic tanks backing up. So you have to be very careful about swimming in the tributaries. Someone asked me where the safest place to swim is, it’s typically near the springs, which are further south. There are more than 100 fresh water springs that are part of the St. Johns River system.

Dredging is happening. What would you do if you were in charge?

First, I would have mitigation. Working with the Army Corps of Engineers in 2012, there was $80 million of mitigation and they pulled that and said don’t worry, the impact is not going to be as bad as we thought. To me, that’s code for engineering-out the mitigation money. The problem is they are not fortifying the river or the tributaries to absorb the impact of dredging. That doesn’t compensate the public for the ecological damage.

Basically, our river is getting screwed because we’re not offsetting those impacts. The port task force that Mayor Alvin Brown appointed recommended $25 million for the restoration of the Ocklawaha River plus $25 million for other mitigation projects in Duval County. That could be tributary restoration, it could be advancing restoration of McCoys Creek and Hogans Creek; anything that makes the tributaries healthier makes the river healthier.

The salt water intrusion produced by the dredging will damage the wetlands, which function as the kidneys of the river. We’ve been advocating mitigation since day one. The port task force, the Times-Union Editorial Board, City Council members and Mayor Curry all committed to mitigation but it’s still not there. As the port authority talks to City Council about funding the dredging, we’re asking for offsetting the damage that will be done to the river.

So the Corps scrapped most of the mitigation and wanted to do mostly monitoring. Is the monitoring aggressive enough?

Definitely not because it doesn’t trigger any action if there is more damage done. You can monitor your health but if you don’t do anything about it what is the use of monitoring? So it’s sort of window dressing. We need monitoring and real action. It’s going to happen, you’re going to see salt water increase and flooding increase. The Corps will say you can’t prove that it’s dredging, it’s sea level rise. They can blame everything on sea level rise.

When it’s both dredging and sea level rise.

And the dredging accelerates the impact of sea level rise because it’s smoothing the way for more of the Atlantic Ocean to come Downtown. The Corps will never admit that the cause is dredging because there is too much noise in the system, they will go back to Congress. That is not good enough. We need to protect our river now.

You have also advocated more conservation of our water supplies if half of all drinking water is used for irrigation. It’s just ridiculous but nothing much gets done. So what should we be doing to conserve our precious drinking water?

The state used to invest heavily in education. There are three components: education, regulation and incentives. When you have those three things in place we can live within our water means, we can protect our springs and our river. When we overuse our aquifer, which we are doing, that reduces the fresh water flow to the springs and the river, which produces more salt water intrusion.

We’re hurting ourselves at both ends of the river. We’re taking out fresh water in Central Florida while dredging is letting in more salt water. So we have to have that education component. We need to make sure there are incentives for utilities to focus on conservation and to do things with their customers. JEA has done some things to reduce consumption.

If nothing is done, and we’ve been doing next to nothing, can you foresee what will happen?

There will be a tipping point where we can’t get back. Now we still have an opportunity to do things right. We are fortunate to have 600,000 acres of conservation land along the St. Johns River. We need to protect that land. We need to protect the headwaters of our tributaries. We need to provide buffers so we can protect wetlands to keep out pollution.

We need a comprehensive approach. Politics sometimes gets in the way. We saw that during the last governor’s administration where we lost four decades of water quality protections. While Gov. DeSantis is putting some of them back slowly, we don’t have the luxury of incremental changes. We have to be aggressive and protect Florida’s water-based economy.

We’re just learning how harmful these toxic algae blooms are. We don’t know exactly how bad they are for you. It’s scary.

It is scary. There seem to be new studies every day about the health threats of being exposed to blue-green algae. With direct contact, they can cause respiratory stress and skin issues. There are longer term issues with liver and neurological concerns. A documentary last year made a connection with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The toxins can be highly problematic. We’re just scratching the surface to understand what is at stake.

I’ve had many phone calls from South Florida, they’re trying to get away from the algae, they want waterfront property. Can they live on the St. Johns and get away from it? I have to be honest and say no. It will decrease property values, it will hurt waterfront businesses. It will undermine our economy based on tourism. It should be a priority for everyone who loves Florida to protect our waters. We’re starting to see the conversation picking up.

Have you changed your mind about anything since you have been in this job, or is there anything that you didn’t fully appreciate?

One of the most surprising things is how many layers of politics there are. To truly protect our community will require commitment from local, regional, state and federal levels. Getting all those pieces in sync is more challenging than I thought. I worked in two Republican administrations here locally for Mayor John Delaney and John Peyton, where there was a bipartisan approach to protecting our environment, our river. There has been a real shift in the last eight years or so.

I have always been a moderate, trying to pull sides together, but I am painted as a radical by some people because I love the river and see the value for Northeast Florida in having a healthy river. And I love to be out there with my family fishing and kayaking and boating. Some people consider it an extreme position to protect our river, which is mind-blowing to me.

Editorial Page Editor Mike Clark began covering the St. Johns River in the 1970s.

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