”Bound By Water” is a monthly column focused on all things water in the state of Florida from fisheries to conservation to the people who affect it. Come on in; the water’s wet.
For more than 20 miles, the Matanzas River winds its way south from the St. Augustine inlet along Anastasia Island before pouring back into the Atlantic Ocean through the inlet that lent the ribbon of water its name, the Matanzas Inlet. The banks of the river that carve along the waterfront of St. Augustine down past Butler and Crescent Beach forge a portal into the past, with each tributary stretching as deep into serpentine creeks as it does into the area’s cultural past. And like much of the area, it’s easy to see the forest for the trees.
When the Spanish established a colony here nearly five centuries ago, a fort was erected on Rattlesnake Island, standing as a sentry to any visitor who made their way through the throat of the inlet. The name, Fort Matanzas, was derived from the Spanish word that means slaughter. After a game of cat and mouse between Spain and France played out along these barrier islands, a hurricane stranded a French fleet on the northern shore of the inlet in 1565, and when the Spanish found those men, they executed nearly every single one—111 in fact. Two weeks later, another fleet found their way to the same point, and those 134 men met the same fate. From then on, this rather tranquil and wild place was called Matanzas. And like most things in Florida, the surface of the water hid an island of complexity beneath.
Today, the river boasts some of the highest water quality in Florida. It’s one of the last places you can harvest oysters in Northeast Florida, and as Neil Armingeon, founder of the Matanzas Riverkeeper, has said countless times it’s “Florida’s last, best river.” The question that hangs over the place now as St. Johns County has fallen under the spell of unfettered development was whether it will remain that way.
As a Florida native, Jen Lomberk never envisioned wearing oyster boots and boat attire to work when she started as a law student at the University of Florida, but when she took the reins from Armingeon last year as the Matanzas Riverkeeper, her wardrobe took a turn. She noted the weird contradiction between the grotesque history of the Matanzas River and the air of tranquility most residents associate with the place.
Now, Lomberk’s charge is to keep the river and its tributaries clean—to make sure it remains swimmable, fishable, and ultimately valuable. As a part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a network of more than 300 organizations that seek to protect waterways, the Matanzas Riverkeeper was founded in 2014 by Armingeon. And as growth marched south from the edge of St. Augustine toward Du Pont Center along U.S. 1 and toward Crescent Beach on A1A, it seemed apparent that something would have to be done to prevent a string of condominiums and cookie-cutter enclaves from enveloping the place while also ensuring the river’s vitality.
Today, the threat is as urgent as ever. Take the proposed development of 999 homes and 200 motel rooms along SR-206 that developers unsuccessfully proposed in 2015, but then filed a lawsuit this year only to be cut down once again by the St. Johns County Commission. And even though the site was roughly four miles from the edge of the Matanzas River, Lomberk warned, “Even if you don’t live directly on the water, the things that you do in your yard and in your home affect our waterways.”
Lomberk wished more folks understood how complex and fragile these waterways are, and more importantly she hoped that some would come to understand how essential the resource was to the community. “Unfortunately, most people don’t consider how delicate these systems are until something catastrophic happens, and by then, it’s often too late.”
Of course, the looming threats to the river remain inextricably tied to urbanization here due to the effect of stormwater, wastewater, and diminishing wetlands. At its core, more people mean more pollution, and that’s demonstrated in how portions of the river have fallen below the State’s water quality criteria, which is already a low bar according to Lomberk. Pollutants like nitrogen or phosphorus associated with lawncare, agriculture, and septic runoff are the central culprits, and as St. Johns County undergoes expansion, it’s critical that residents, visitors, and administrators pay close attention to mitigating their footprint. Take note of the algal blooms creeping up along the coast as one example and how water quality across the entire state has precipitously plummeted in the past eight years.
In the years ahead though, Lomberk has her eyes trained on the Matanzas attaining designation as an Outstanding Florida Waterway, which would garner the river special protection by implementing more stringent standards and ushering in a new set of permitting requirements that might edge out some of the more short-sighted developments proposed along the waterway.
But for the time being, the place remains wild, and when you look out across the archipelago of oyster beds that rise and fall among bundles of Spartina grass stretching back into stands of pine, you still feel like you’re in Florida. But without your voice and mine, this could all fall prey to a fever dream of bulldozers and fill dirt. In another five centuries, one could mistake the name of the river to reflect the slaughter of the river rather than the massacre that occurred here. If Lomberk has anything to do with it, the name will simply be a faint memory of another time—one more mysterious origin story that haunts this place.