By Jill Leavy, Special to The Florida Times-Union, May 21, 2006
It's been called Jacksonville's crown jewel and the city's greatest natural resource. Extending 310 miles from Cape Canaveral to Jacksonville, the St. Johns River travels through 18 counties. Its basin is home to 3.5 million people and is the second largest ecosystem in the state, after the Florida Everglades. With its widespread impact on the region's economy, recreation and ecology, it's no wonder the expansive waterway has long been recognized as the region's lifeblood.
That's no surprise for students of urban history; robust cities are almost always situated near water. Boston, with its proximity to the St. Charles, Baltimore and its Inner Harbor, and Louisville on the banks of the Ohio River, are all models of successful American cities with historically significant pasts. These cities used their waterways for commerce, food, protection, transportation and waste disposal, just as Jacksonville used the St. Johns. But increased environmental awareness, accompanied by the desire for higher and better economic uses, has prompted cities to reexamine how they exploit natural resources.
Jacksonville is not alone in its quest to make better use of its river. A 2005 JCCI report on the St. Johns showed that communities around the world are working to protect their environment and maximize their waterways. Duval County's recent allocation of $10 million from the Florida Legislature is timely. This is the first step in a major river restoration initiative that will clean up the lower St. Johns River basin. The effort will also provide a uniquely Jacksonville riverfront that ensures access to the public, enhances economic growth and enriches the entire community's quality of life.
As Jacksonville embraces more waterfront development, city leaders are examining ways to address environmental issues while realizing a renewed vision for downtown. The momentum created by the completion of the Riverwalks, JMOMA and the new Main Library, and events like Artwalk and the Farmer's Market are harbingers of a new era for both the city and the St. Johns River.
The River's Story
Dating back to the time when Timucua Indians lived on its banks almost 6,000 years ago, the river has been central to Northeast Florida's growth. In fact, Jacksonville owes its very existence to the St. Johns River. The earliest inhabitants used the river as a source of commerce and food, and explorers used it as a gateway for settlement and travel. The Spanish named the river Rio de San Juan or St. Johns River after a mission located near the river's mouth on Fort St. George Island.
Jacksonville has mirrored the growth of many of its river city contemporaries. During the Industrial Revolution, urban riverfronts became popular locations for factories and sewage treatment plants. When a community's priorities changed and factories abandoned these locations, industrial riverfronts were often left in decay. To add insult to injury, city planners expanded the nation's burgeoning highway transportation system along urban riverfronts, often cutting off rivers from the cities they had spawned.
In the late 1960s, many communities decided to turn back to their waterfronts, redeveloping them for public recreation and open space, housing, and office and retail uses to revitalize sagging downtowns. As water-dependent industries declined or moved away, riverfront property was once again viewed as a valuable untapped resource and a source of revenue and entertainment.
'In the 20th century, cities have placed more of an emphasis on a river's value to its citizens' quality of life,' said Jeff Steagall, professor of international business at the University of North Florida. 'As cities transition from strictly commercial use to include more recreational use of their rivers, water quality and aesthetics have become much more significant.'
The River's Economy – Priceless
There's little doubt the St. Johns River is the trade engine that drives Jacksonville. While its economic impact may be hard to quantify, the peripheral industries the river supports and affects are abundant.
As the passageway to the Atlantic Ocean, the river is home to 30 commercial passenger and cargo terminals, five military/government facilities, four commercial ship repair/construction facilities, three power generating stations and six navigational and vessel support facilities. The Jacksonville Port Authority's terminals alone handled a record-setting 8.4 million tons of cargo in 2005, including more than 544,000 vehicles - making the port one of the largest vehicle-handling ports in the nation. JAXPORT also supports more than 45,000 jobs in Northeast Florida.
From a recreation, entertainment and leisure perspective, the river is the cornerstone of Jacksonville's diverse outdoor activities. The NFL billed Super Bowl XXXIX as the 'Super Bowl on the River' allowing guests to experience luxury cruise ship accommodations and festivities right on the water. NFL officials estimate the Super Bowl infused anywhere from $250 to $300 million into Jacksonville's economy last year. According to the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce, Northeast Florida has also gained the largest number of new jobs in more than five years since hosting the game.
'Without the river, the Super Bowl would not have come to Jacksonville, plain and simple,' said Jerry Mallott, executive vice president of the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce. 'The idea of having cruise ships on the river is what captured the imagination of the NFL owners who selected Jacksonville as the Super Bowl site. Not only did the cruise ships provide the extra hotel rooms we needed, but they also provided an exciting and vibrant downtown atmosphere on the river.'
The river also supports a variety of outdoor activities, including boating, fishing, bird and wildlife viewing, parks and a slew of special events. The St. Johns is the region's most significant source of shrimp, blue crab and catfish. It also supports a significant sports fishery industry with large-mouth bass, crappie, bream, redfish, trout and flounder. Many of the community's signature events take place along the riverfront, including the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, World of Nations, the city's spectacular Fourth of July Fireworks and the Spring Music Festival.
'I have people come from all over the world to fish here,' said Vic Tison, owner of Vic2Fish and Adventures, a charter boat company in Jacksonville. 'With 300 waterways between Clapboard and Sisters creeks, this region is one of the biggest draws for out-of-towners.'
Some estimates place the river's economic value to the region at $2.5 billion, according to St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon. With approximations that high, it's no wonder the river's health and sustainability has spurred so much civic discourse. The river's economic value, especially for residential and recreational uses, could be significantly degraded by poor water quality.
A Healthier St. Johns
With an eye toward the economy, environmental safety and quality of life, Mayor John Peyton recently asked state lawmakers to provide funds to improve water quality in the St. Johns River. The legislature responded positively earmarking $10 million to begin a comprehensive river restoration plan that includes wastewater upgrades, use of reclaimed water and elimination of failing septic systems.
'This is an excellent start to what we hope will be a long-term commitment to our river,' Peyton said. 'Fortunately, the river is still at a point where we can restore its ecological health and see positive results. It will take a lot of money and energy over time, but I think we have built the case to sustain the effort.'
The state funds will be added to other resources from the city, JEA, the St. Johns River Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for a project estimated to cost more than $400 million over 10 years. We must meet goals for reducing pollutants in the river and its tributaries. That means the project has regional impact well beyond Jacksonville. It also means that unaddressed pollution issues threaten economic development, because federal pollution limits on the river could halt business growth along its banks.
'When we keep our river clean and do the right things, the economic ramifications are tremendous,' says the Chamber's Mallot. 'When CEOs and corporate site selection experts see an attractive river and all the amenities that come with that, then we all benefit. We attract more great companies to our city, create high-wage jobs and improve our quality of life.'
Ben Williams, owner of Williams Wholesale Seafood in Mandarin, said the crab fishermen were adversely affected during last summer's algae bloom. 'Summers are like Christmas for crabbers,' said Williams. 'Normally vendors would bring me 1,200 pounds of crab a week. Last year during the algae bloom, that amount went down to 300 pounds for two months. They lost a lot of money.'
Algae blooms, evidenced by green coloration in the river, are caused by an overload of nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorous that occur in fertilizer. Excessive use of fertilizer by homeowners, commercial spreaders, golf courses and parks contribute to the river's high nutrient level and enable bacteria and algae to thrive. The algae then depletes oxygen levels vital to fish and other aquatic life.
'We can build more roads, houses or schools, but we can't build any more rivers,' said Dr. A Quinton White, a Jacksonville University professor of biology and marine science who is regarded by many as the area's premier river scientist. 'Our city's growth has caught up with us and the river cannot naturally process the pollutants that are flowing into it. Now is the time to act.'
Now is The Time
With city records showing that Duval County added 39 people a day to its population in 2005, officials expect the growth to continue unabated. By 2025, the population within the St. Johns River basin is projected to be almost 6 million. Such growth will likely increase the demand for industrial, commercial and residential development as well as recreational spaces. Also, to meet increased needs for potable water, the St. Johns River has been identified as a potential source of drinking water.
In order to meet those demands and set a course for the future, Peyton and his team have been formulating plans not only to clean the river, but to integrate it into a comprehensive downtown redevelopment strategy as well. In talks with downtown stakeholders in February, Peyton emphasized the city should pursue opportunities that exist today but might not exist in the future. That means acting decisively now to set a long-term course to preserve, protect and restore the St. Johns before it's too late.
According to the Mayor's Growth Management Task Force commissioned in May 2005, most of the city's 300 miles of waterfront shoreline is privately owned. At a time when riverfront property values are at an all-time high, the task force determined that it's critical to have a long-term plan to insure access for the public. The mayor's plans for downtown include preserving and enhancing view corridors to the river, providing increased opportunities for children and families to access the waterfront, encouraging pedestrian traffic, connecting the Riverwalks and preserving access options for the public moving forward.
'The St. Johns River defines who we are as a people, and the health of the river and its tributaries is central to our community's quality of life, economic development and future,' said Peyton. 'The riverfront is the foundation of Jacksonville's downtown revitalization.'