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Summer Pollution Worst Ever In St. Johns River, FL Riverkeeper Fights for Cleaner River By Dave Montgomery


f there’s one thing sailors take for granted it’s the water flowing under their hulls. As long as there’s H2O between the keel and the bottom, everything is fine, right? But, what if you want to drop the hook for an overnight anchorage? It might be nice to dive in for a cooling swim or let the kids play in the water. That’s when you start to wonder about what’s in the water. Just how clean is it? For boaters on the St. Johns River this summer, jumping in the water hasn’t even been a remote consideration. The water is definitely not healthy or clean. All you have to do is sniff and you know. The St. Johns River is Florida’s longest river at 310 miles. It flows north from Lake George, which lies about halfway between Daytona and Ocala, to Jacksonville where it flows out to the Atlantic. The ICW crosses the river east of Jacksonville. In summer 2010, as in the past five years, the St. Johns shows troubling symptoms of sickness. According to longtime residents, this year has been the worst in memory. Smelly green algae blooms have become commonplace. This year there was the addition of a mysterious white foam, which appeared seemingly everywhere. Then, a widespread fish kill was even more troubling. Feel like going for a swim? Didn’t think so. The quality of water in all Florida rivers and streams has been steadily declining over the years. Most of us feel powerless to do anything about it even though the problem, for the most part, is us. The good news is the existence of the Riverkeeper Organization, a non-profit advocacy group that fights for cleaner rivers, lakes and estuaries. The stated mission of the St. Johns Riverkeeper is to “work on behalf of the community for clean and healthy waters on the St. Johns River, its tributaries and its wetlands, through citizen-based advocacy.” Neil Armingeon is the St. Johns Riverkeeper. He, along with a director and staff of three, takes the fight for cleaner water wherever it needs to go while tirelessly educating the public about being individually responsible for water quality. Sometimes they are taking industrial polluters to court to enforce clean water laws, often doing the job government regulators are not doing. Other times they may be suing a public utility for allowing untreated wastewater into the water or fighting another utility that wants to draw millions of gallons of freshwater out of the river. Armingeon is an affable, laid-back man with a ready 32

September 2010


Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon on his river patrol boat. He, along with a director and staff of three, takes the fight for cleaner water wherever it needs to go while tirelessly educating the public about being individually responsible for water quality. Photo courtesy

smile and an easy southern drawl. But there is nothing laid back about his passion for the St. Johns River. One of the first things you learn about him is that he is determined to do everything in his power to fight for the river. “I love the river,” he says unabashedly. “I’ve literally traveled its whole length. I would do anything for this river. It’s one of the greatest bodies of water on earth.” Armingeon is often the first person people call when they see dead fish or widespread algae blooms. Rather than trying to navigate a labyrinth of government agencies, they call him because he knows who to call. By virtue of his high profile, officials and politicians generally take his calls and listen to what he has to say. For several summers, boaters have witnessed bright green algae blooms that are the most widespread and visible sign of pollution. The blooms stretch for miles all the way from Lake George through Jacksonville. Far from being picturesque, these long green lines of algae are smelly and toxic. Then, this summer, two even more troubling symptoms arose. The first was inexplicable foam on the water. It’s not the sea foam you might see on the beach or somebody’s washing machine overflow. It is heavy viscous foam that floats along in huge rafts and collects to completely cover some backwater areas. The foam has alarmed residents who have never seen such a thing, nor have they witnessed a widespread fish kill. Around Memorial Day, numerous reports of dead fish began to come in. “From Memorial Day through early July the phone was ringing off the hook,” reports Armingeon. Thousands of fish were suddenly belly up in the water. The health departments of three counties bordering the St. Johns issued statements advising people to stay out of the water where there were algae blooms or dead fish. Needless to say boaters and fishermen lost their desire to take their vessels out of the slips. Recreational fishing dropped off, and commercial fishing was hit hard by this. Sailors who still sailed had their noses assaulted by the stink of dying algae. In the case of this year’s algae, foam and dead fish, there’s no smoking gun or single culprit. However, after the Riverkeeper “raised hell,” the EPA, Fish and Wildlife Commission and Florida Department of Environmental