by David Ball
By the end of today, many more people outside of Northeast Florida will know about the St. Johns River Water Management District’s plans to allow up to 260 million gallons of water a day to be drawn from the St. Johns River.
The national environmental group American Rivers this morning made public its annual list of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers,” which this year includes the St. Johns in the No. 6 position based entirely on the withdrawal threats.
The St. Johns Riverkeeper, the area’s most vocal critics of the plan, held a press conference this morning in Riverside announcing the news, and Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon was making the rounds yesterday with local and national newspapers and TV stations.
“American Rivers is one of the pre-eminent if not the pre-eminent river group in this country,” said Armingeon. “This is one of the biggest national environmental stories every year, and it will run in every major newspaper and draw national attention to what is going on.”
American Rivers officials claim the designation and accompanying reports are based on scientific research. However, Water Management District Executive Director Kirby Green said there’s nothing scientific or objective about it and that it moves an important discussion out of the rational and into the emotional.
“At best, I would characterize their list as a position paper,” said Green. “I think a lot of this is to help them build their memberships. It’s sensationalism, and it doesn’t reflect where the river truly is.”
The American River report states “Unprecedented growth and development threatens the health of the St. Johns River and its tributaries... The [District], a governmental body that oversees area waters, is looking to the St. Johns and its principal tributary, the Ocklawaha River, to fuel this growth.”
However, Green said American Rivers never contacted the District to find out any specific plans.
“The Web site says it’s a scientifically based, balanced organization that’s dedicated to giving a balanced approach to the health of rivers,” said Green. “How do you do that when you don’t contact people along the river that are involved with these issues every day?”
Matt Rice, associate director of Southeast conservation for American Rivers, said the endangered rivers were chosen among hundreds of applications from local environmental groups outlining the threats to their rivers.
“St. Johns Riverkeeper turned in their nomination packet, and they included a lot of information that helped us make our decision,” said Rice. “Since then, our Most Endangered Rivers team has spent a lot of time fact checking and making sure the research and facts are straight.”
Rice said one of the criteria for a river to make the list is that there has to be an impending decision within a year that could affect the threat posed to the river. For the St. Johns, that would be permit requests from counties looking to withdraw water.
“Seminole County has already submitted its permit request, and several water managers are likely to submit withdrawal applications in 2008,” the report states. “The SJRWMD Board of Governors should deny this and all other withdrawal permits.”
The Seminole County permit to withdraw 5.5 million gallons a day was legally challenged by the City of Jacksonville, the Riverkeeper and others before it could reach the District board. And Green said other projects are at least 18 months away from the permitting process.
Armingeon said the designation’s main goal is to raise a national awareness of the Water Management Districts “failed plan,” particularly a lack of knowledge about how withdrawing water near the headwaters could affect the nutrient and pollution content further downstream.
“We hope to combine our local activism and American River’s national level to turn the heat up on the District’s plan,” said Armingeon.
Green said the District is a few months into a two-year study that will see take a second look at 10 years of initial research showing that water can be safely withdrawn from the river. It will be complete before any future projects are up for permit, he said.
“We will continue to do studies to ensure the health of the river is being protected,” said Green. “We will continue to exercise what we think are our statutory directives to protect the river, protect the ecosystem around the river and make sure the citizens of the state have water when they need it.”