Each morning Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, finds herself where the river needs a voice. Some days, that’s pushing west on I-10 to Tallahassee with the sun trailing behind. On others, it’s deep down some tributary of the 310-mile-long watershed that flows north from Indian River County to where it meets the Atlantic in Mayport. Some days call for a blazer; others require waders.
In the past five centuries, a slew of names were appended to the ribbon of water by Spanish, English, French, and American colonists. Native tribes lent it names, often based on settlements along its banks, but its moods and makeup generated names for the river, too. The Spanish deemed it Rio de Corrients or River of Currents due to the breakers where it met the sea, and previously the word Ylacca, later anglicized to Welaka, was used to describe the river, meaning “many lakes,” because ultimately the St. Johns is a constellation of lakes and wetlands that march north. But despite dozens of myths, the name that stuck was “San Juan.”
In the push and pull of colonies that occupied the peninsula since the 16th century, the name was molded slowly over time until it became the St. Johns River under English control. And ever since, the river has carved out a place in the imagination of Americans, garnering an American Heritage River status under President Bill Clinton in 1998. But ever since the record took shape, it has continually cultivated curiosity in those that came to know it.
Rinaman fell under its spell when she moved to Jacksonville in 1997 from Arkansas. Two years later, the Waterkeeper Alliance formed its chapter for the St. Johns, promising to ensure the river’s vitality. But it wasn’t until February 2012 when Rinaman was named the St. Johns Riverkeeper, after 11 years in the Jacksonville Mayors’ office serving John Delaney first and then John Peyton. In countless conference rooms, she carefully listened to the Riverkeepers that preceded her, assembling some sense of how policy affected the river, and more broadly of how the river affected people. Over the past seven years, that’s become the thing that haunts her.
And today, with a litany of threats to the river’s health, Rinaman has only grown fiercer. Under Governor Rick Scott’s eight-year tenure, she feels that the State lost four decades of water quality protections, as he chipped away at regulatory bodies, slashed funding, and divorced evidence from decision. And in the past few years, Floridians have seen the fallout with increased algal blooms throughout the state, red tide, and unprecedented habitat degradation. Agricultural run-off coupled with development saturated the State’s waterways with nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, but there was also a century or more of neglect that vexed the State. “You can’t buy your way out of this problem,” she says. “You have to restore the waterways and remove pollution from the past.” But of course, this was easier said than done.
When Governor Ron Desantis took office this year, there was a sense of promise among environmentalists. He committed to more funding for Everglades restoration, denied donations from Big Sugar, and asked all of the South Florida Water Management District’s board to resign—signaling change. But while the Desantis’ administration and the governing bodies of Florida have made countless promises to clean up Florida’s water and reduce past pollution, there has been little attention paid to what lies ahead. As Rinaman warns, “We’re not seeing that commitment to new protections coming out this administration just yet.” Doubt seemed to course through the State like the water that undergirded it.
In the State’s budget this year, it appeared that South Florida’s water was prioritized over the rest of the State with significant portions earmarked for projects south of Kissimmee. That troubles Rinaman, because she knows that the St. Johns required just as much probity as any other waterway in the State. Industrial magnates like Georgia Pacific or utilities like JEA still pose significant threats to the river if not kept in check. Algal blooms appeared along the wending ribbon from Lake George to Palatka in the past year, but due to much of the river falling within rural areas, some of those stories don’t make it past local papers. “We need more people reporting,” Rinaman says, noting how residents should photograph what they see and let legislators, officials, and the Riverkeeper know.
“There is a cost of doing nothing,” she warns.
In 2007, a legislative decision permitted the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to truck treated sewage from south Florida and dispose of it on agricultural land near the headwaters of the St. Johns. In 2017, more than 89,000 tons were dumped in that area, and slowly its legacy has crept north through the watershed. “That pollution has to go somewhere,” says Rinaman, noting how eventually the communities upriver would bear the burden of the fallout. “Not only are we undermining the health of our waterways,” she says. “We’re undermining public investment.”
Another threat was quenching the Orlando metro area’s thirst, because with a looming shortage of potable water, County Officials have turned to the St. Johns as one solution. But Rinaman among countless others feel that the idea is nearsighted, because if fresh water was siphoned out of the river, saltwater would take its place, irrevocably harming the complex system of springs that nourish the river, the wetlands that serve as kidneys, and ultimately our quality of life, which is inextricably tied to it.
Rinaman believes it’s the natural resources that make Florida magical, and if growth and pollution weren’t addressed in a thoughtful, tenacious way, that the State might lose its allure. After all, it was the water that drew her here. That holds true for many of us. “We’ve got to have these protective regulations to manage the people that live here today,” she says, adding, “And the thousands that are coming tomorrow.”