Riverkeeper's Jimmy Orth: Oil in the Gulf, the 'Green Monster' and cleanup costs

May. 5, 2010

from staff

Jimmy Orth is executive director of The St. Johns Riverkeeper, a nonprofit that serves as the advocate and watchdog for the St. Johns River. It works to improve water quality, protect the critical habitat in the river’s watershed, provide public access to the waterways and educate members and the public about the river and the issues that impact its health. Orth met with the editorial staff of the Daily Record on Tuesday.

Will the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico reach our shores and the St. Johns River?

There’s lots of speculation. The potential is there if it hits the Gulf Stream. It shows us we do have limites over what we can control. (With decisions that could affect the environment), we have to carefully think about the risks. ‘What if we didn’t get it right?’ This highlights to me that risk.

What are other Waterkeeper Alliance members saying and do you plan on making a trip over there to see it for yourself?

I don’t know if I will. It’s kind of ironic, because (St. Johns Riverkeeper) Neil (Armingeon) is not too far from there. He was planning to go to the jazz festival in New Orleans. He ended up in New Orleans to see an old friend on Lake Pontchartrain. He’s very close to a lot of those folks over there, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes back over there.

I think what’s hard to grasp sometimes in the media is what a disaster this potentially is for them. They’re preparing, trying to get volunteers and resources needed to respond to this. One of the things they also want to do is make sure they respond by being able to evaluate what’s being done to mitigate this problem. Also, what are the proposed cleanup methods and if those are the best cleanup methods. I think the Waterkeepers play a big role in the accountability aspect of it all.

Q: What’s your hunch on how the St. Johns River will look this year in terms of algae blooms?

A: Well, a lot of that is driven by weather conditions. It has to do with how much rainfall you get, how hot it is. Clearly there is still an issue with nutrients. There’s too many going into the St. Johns. The conditions are always there for it to happen. Recently, we did a two-day boat trip on the St. Johns in early April and Neil said around, I believe, the Lake George area, they saw signs of these white discs that are the precursor to the blooms. Last year, we saw the same thing and shortly after the algae blooms. We think the conditions are there to see ‘The Green Monster’ again. I got a call yesterday from someone south of Palatka who said they thought they saw what was a green paint spill. This is fairly early, too. Usually it doesn’t happen until late summer when we really see the largest blooms and it gets really hot and nutrients from the fertilizers rush in.

The Florida legislative session just ended. What are some of the items that might have helped or hindered what you do?

A: The (State Sen. Lee) Constantine bill, which was originally the springs bill but ended up being just the water bill, had some good things in at the end of the day. There are some requirements that septic tanks have to be inspected, I think, every five years, which is good because we need that monitoring process. Industry groups had some concerns it would add a layer of government, but Constantine said it well. It’ll actually help homeowners because monitoring will help implement preventive measures. When they fail, the cost to homeowners is astronomical. And obviously, we’re trying to reduce the impacts to the environment and they have a cost. Many of the issues we have with bacteria in Jacksonville, for instance, most of our tributaries are paired with levels of fecal coliform bacteria that is too high.

Does the legislation for a St. Johns River license plate help you at all?

Unfortunately, no. I mean it could. It could, but not directly, if the organization, the St. Johns River Alliance, uses that money to help protect the river. That organization, of which we are a board member, we’re hopeful that money will now give them the money to do some more proactive things for the river.

Are there any members of the Duval Delegation or City Council who have helped you?

It’s interesting because we’ve been trying to develop those relationships. It’s something that’s fairly new to us. We started this Water Policy Group one of our board members, Barbara Ketchum, heads up. It’s been an effort to get community and business members to work toward more protective policies in general, especially water conservation. I always say that we don’t have a water supply problem, we have a water use problem. We can use it much more efficiently than we do. Through that process, we’ve met with a lot of politicians. Senator (John) Thrasher has said he wants to continue to carry Sen. Jim King’s torch and be the champion for the river. We’ll have to see. He’s said all the right things and said a lot publicly, but we’ll see if his actions meet his words. So far, I know the Constantine bill, he voted for it. So did Sen. Steve Wise and Sen. Tony Hill. On the Senate side, it passed. On the House side, it passed also, but unfortunately, all our Republican House members in the Duval Delegation voted against it, while Rep. Audrey Gibson and Mia Jones voted for it.

You are a native of Jacksonville. When and how did you develop your interest in environmental issues?

In college, I didn’t think about the environment that much. As I graduated, I started understanding the impacts, how dire the outlook was, the path we are on. ‘It’s about me, my friends, my family, humanity.’

(At events) you have Mr. Republican in the room with Mr. Democrat. People put ideology aside. People agree.

A lot of the announced mayoral candidates for the 2011 election have at least mentioned the St. Johns River as an interest point. What will the role of the river be?

Obviously, it’s going to be interesting. We’re watching it closely and trying to figure out how we can elevate river issues in the dialogue, not just for the mayor’s race, but the other races as well. We want this to be a point and we want to put these candidates on the spot and let them answer the tough questions. I think it’s going to be a central focus in these campaigns. All these candidates recognize the importance of the river. I hope that people don’t look at these other issues and forget about the river. In fact, the river is the one thing that hasn’t lowered in value during these times, and I think candidates recognize it.

How do you think Mayor John Peyton has done on the issue during his term?

I think he’s actually done a great job. We were a little concerned at first that he didn’t have a full grasp of the issues, but I think he’s really embraced some of the issues and taken some tough positions.

One of the things that sticks out in my mind is the hearing last April at the Water Management District in Palatka for water withdrawal. Peyton went down there and stayed the entire time. I was about to lose my mind. I hate those kind of things, standing around and waiting. He refused to leave. He hung in there until the bitter end and felt like it was important that he was there to make a stand for the river. And that was important to me. A lot of politicians pop in, say their few words and leave. But he stayed and that meant a lot.

There was this focus in our community about privatizing our waterfront and then carving out a little public access if we can. I think communities that have successfully developed their waterfront have made it public and the private around it grows. He’s come around to where I think he realized it as a central part of his proposal to maximize public access.

If we’re going to have a vibrant Downtown, the river has got to play a critical role and I think he’s realized it. It was a tough choice to implement a stormwater fee, but I think it’s necessary. Most other communities have already had one. He was willing to take that political risk because he felt it was the right thing to do.

What is the first question you want to ask the mayoral candidates?

‘Are you willing to make the investment necessary to clean up and restore the health of the river?’ It’s a significant investment. We want a candidate to do what it takes.

We always tend to compromise.

How much would that be?

It’s in the billions, of course.