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Fla. river struggles against pollution

Growth around the St. Johns River has forced the waterway to absorb a staggering load of pollution, including bacteria, dioxin, mercury, nutrients, PCBs and sediment. 

PALATKA, Fla. — The St. Johns River has long been recognized as one of the finest bass fishing rivers in the country. But now the river is suffering from a witch's brew of pollutants that threaten to ruin it. State officials thus far have been slow to take action against the sewage treatment plants and other facilities that are largely responsible for the river's decline.

The St. Johns River originates west of Melbourne, and lazily meanders north until it meets the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville. Due to Florida's flat terrain, the river flows very slowly at some points, forming large lakes and even disappearing entirely into the surrounding wetlands. Like many Southern rivers, the St. Johns is choked with hydrilla. While largemouth bass are by far the river's most popular gamefish species, anglers may also find catfish, pickerel and assorted panfish. Observers can even spot the occasional alligator.

The Riverkeeper organization has worked for several years to protect the river against encroachment by civilization and all of its attendant problems. But with an estimated average of 1,200 people moving to Florida per day, real estate developers are pressuring for the opportunity to build closer to the river.

This growth has forced the river to absorb a staggering load of pollution, including bacteria, dioxin, mercury, nutrients, PCBs and sediment. Because dioxin, mercury and PCBs settle to the river bottom, the St. Johns Riverkeeper organization has focused its efforts on pollutants that remain suspended in the water.

Among these pollutants, nutrients are the greatest concern for the Riverkeepers. The most dangerous nutrient is fecal coliform bacteria, which is found in human and animal feces. Since 2001, a wastewater treatment plant in Jacksonville has released more than 12 million gallons of raw sewage into the river. Florida public health officials tested the river and some of its feeder creeks for the presence of fecal coliform bacteria. The maximum allowable concentration for this type of bacteria is 200 parts per 10 milliliters of water. The testers recorded bacteria concentrations of 10,000 parts and higher.

Nutrients may enter the river via several pathways. Runoff from heavy rainstorms often flows directly into the St. Johns. In agricultural and suburban areas, fertilizer and pesticides contribute to the nutrient load. While a number of methods for reducing nutrient pollution are available, none of them is widely used due to the cost and effort involved.

Probably the most visible indicator of high nutrient levels is the rampant algae growth during the warmer months. In addition to being unsightly, algae can damage the aquatic environment by reducing dissolved oxygen. It can also prevent sunlight from reaching the native submerged plants that are essential for the survival of juvenile fish and other aquatic organisms.

Certain types of algae are harmful to humans and animals. During the warmer months, large algae blooms often form in the St. Johns River. Last summer, swimmers and anglers complained of rashes after coming into contact with the algae. Florida biologists tested the algae blooms and confirmed the presence of Mycrocystis aeruginosa, a toxic form of blue-green algae. The World Health Organization said that the maximum safe concentration for this type of algae is 10 parts per 1 billion parts water. The toxic algae concentrations in the St. Johns water samples were 50 to 140 times higher than the maximum allowable limit.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required to establish a total maximum daily limit (TMDL) for each individual pollutant released into a river. For more than five years, the EPA and conservation organizations argued over the TMDL for nutrients released into the lower St. Johns River.

In 2004, the EPA issued a TMDL. Environmental activists went to court, claiming that the TMDL violated the Clean Water Act. In 2005, the EPA rescinded it. At press time, a federal judge had given the EPA until Jan. 23 to produce a more satisfactory TMDL for the lower St. Johns River.