2023 St. Johns River Report shows improvements in some areas, growing causes for concern in others

October 13, 2023

The 2023 St. Johns River Report will be released today at the Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board Annual Symposium. The Report, jointly produced by an interdisciplinary team of scientists from Jacksonville University (JU), University of North Florida (UNF), and other universities, provides a comprehensive overview of the conditions in the Lower St. Johns River Basin and is updated annually to reflect positive and negative changes to this critical watershed.  

The Environmental Symposium is organized by the City of Jacksonville’s Environmental Protection Board and the UNF Institute of Environmental Research and Education, which annually brings together leading experts in the field to share ideas. The focus this year is on building a resilient Jacksonville.

This year’s report, funded by the Environmental Protection Board, highlighted signs of progress and areas of growing concern. The research team observed that the St. Johns River’s tributaries continue to suffer from severe pollution, notably high levels of fecal bacteria, phosphorous, and other pollutants. Additionally, development continues to threaten the river’s wetlands, and mitigation banks outpace more environmentally friendly alternatives like preservation, restoration, and enhancement. Rising salinity levels are impacting the river’s ecology, particularly submerged aquatic vegetation, while the water column is contaminated by various pharmaceuticals.

“This year’s report reflects persistent threats to the St. Johns River and its tributaries that are likely to be made worse by the effects of climate change, including cumulative impacts from nutrients, of which biosolids are an increasing concern,” commented Dr. Gerry Pinto, one of the lead researchers on the report and associate research scientist at Jacksonville University’s Marine Science Research Institute. “Bacterial contamination from failing infrastructure, and the loss of wetlands due to development pressures, including rising salinity and more non-native species, continue to stress critical habitats. Submerged aquatic vegetation has been poor to recover and nutrient pollution contributes to algae blooms that are yet not well understood.”

The report offered some hopeful findings. 

Dr. Pinto explained, “This report gives us a glimmer of hope amidst ongoing challenges. We’re pleased to see most fin fish and invertebrates are not in danger of overfishing, and dissolved oxygen in the mainstem remains satisfactory. Protected species continue to fare well. There has been some increase in wetlands on state-managed lands and a reduction in sanitary sewer overflow volume since last year, and we remain optimistic that the positive trajectory will continue.”
In addition to these insights, this year’s report features story maps on flood risk and social vulnerability, along with a range of new maps in the Background section. Furthermore, an engaging Highlight section delves into the “Past, Present, and Future of American Alligators.”
The research team will discuss the findings during a virtual presentation and panel discussion hosted by WJCT Public Media at 4 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 16.

At JU, Dr. Pinto served as principal investigator of the report, while also writing on salinity, fisheries and submerged aquatic vegetation. Dr. Gretchen Bielmyer-Fraser, Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Millar Wilson Laboratory, assessed water quality and contaminants. Dr. Nisse Goldberg, Professor of Biology and Marine Science, wrote about wetlands and non-native aquatic species. Dr. William Penwell, Associate Professor of Biology, provided information about bacteria levels. Dr. Ashley Johnson, Associate Professor of Geography, created a story map on flood risk, resiliency, and social vulnerability, and assisted Dr. Goldberg with the creation of GIS maps of annual sanitary sewer overflows. Niki Spadaro provided important assistance as the technical editor of the report.   
From UNF, Dr. Christopher Baynard, Associate Professor of Geography and Geographic Information Systems, updated the historical background section (adding several new maps) and edited the report for the general public. Dr. Dale Casamatta, Professor of Biology, edited and updated the chapter on algal blooms. Dr. Scott Jones, Assistant Professor of Biology, updated the chapter on water quality in the tributaries, while Dr. Adam Rosenblatt, assistant professor of biology, authored the Highlight section of the report this year that focuses on status of alligators in northeast Florida. Dr. Brian Zoellner, Associate Professor of Teaching, Learning & Curriculum, served as co-principal investigator and helped JU students create presentations for secondary educators to teach their students about water quality, salinity, aquatic animals, invasive species and more. Dr. Charles Closmann, Associate Professor of History, created a new K-12 lesson plan on the history of the St. Johns River. UNF’s Center for Instruction and Research Technology (CIRT), staff including Shelby Scanlon, David Wilson, and Mike Boyles, provided valuable web support. Former UNF Professor Dr. Radha Pyati, now Chancellor and Dean of Penn State Berks, wrote the executive summary of the report and the turbidity section.

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