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by Jim Porter

(This is Part 2 of the St. Johns River trilogy)

Lying just to the West of the cities of Melbourne and Palm Bay, the St. Johns is given birth in a large marsh drainage area encompassing some 900 square miles. Over the past three decades, both the marsh basin and some of the close-by lakes have experienced serious environmental problems and degradation.

There appear to be two primary culprits: drainage modifications to the marsh; and, farming (agriculture and livestock) run-off.

In order to obtain more usable lands, the farming industries and the Army Corps of Engineers constructed canals and modified existing river channels to allow rapid drainage of the natural marshlands. These actions resulted in a `conveyor belt effect', wherein the rapidly discharging waters and all that they carried were sent directly into the main river channel and near lakes. Under normal (Mother Nature's) circumstances, these waters would have passed slowly across thousands of acres of marshland, allowing suspended soil to settle out and chemical elements to be absorbed by plant-life before reaching the main drainage. But, that was no longer to be the case.

Large quantities of suspended soil were deposited directly into the headwaters of the river, resulting in extensive silting. What were at one time 10-foot depths with clean white sand bottoms in the St. Johns headwaters are now shallow, muck and slime-filled areas, often impassable by even small, shallow-draft boat traffic.

And, with the use of the reclaimed land, there came the artificial fertilization input to crops and the natural fertilization outputs from the animal excretment of huge cattle operations. In its simplest form, the fertilizer (nutrient) element resulting as a residue was phosphate-based.

Phosphate is excellent for stimulating the growth of agriculture products, but it also serves the same purpose when applied to aquatic plants. Its introduction in concentration results in an explosion of aquatic vegetation, particularly in the hot summer months. The growth often become so thick on the surface that sunlight cannot pass and photosynthesis (a by-product of which being oxygen production) cannot take place. On the upper St. Johns, the massive and impenetrable vegetation infestation has even stopped much of the usual boating activities.

In the case of the St. Johns River marsh, a major program is underway to stop the degradation and return some portion to its natural state. This effort, an excellent example of how local, State, and Federal agencies CAN cooperate with the proper incentives and leadership, is actually working.

There are four basic goals of the restoration project.
  1. Re-acquire substantial portions of the drained marshlands from the private farming enterprises; a very sensitive undertaking, but the key ingredient of the program.
  2. Plug the drainage canals and force the run-off waters to once again flow through the cleansing marsh for suspended materials settlement and for nutrient absorption by the marsh vegetation.
  3. Reduce the existing vegetation in the St. Johns River and its effected lakes, using a number of non- persistent herbicides, both in spray and pellet form.
  4. Attain and maintain the corrected condition without totally eliminating the livelihood of the farming elements.
All the farm land could not be re-acquired and some still remain active. Therefore, some drainage and run-off aspects simply could not be fully eliminated and had to be controlled in some creative manner. This is being accomplished by the construction of a series of large `retention reservoirs', into which the drainage and run-off waters are pumped. Once the waters make their way from the intake point to an overflow spill-way at another point, settlement of the suspended materials will have occurred to a large degree and most dissolved chemicals will have been absorbed by the reservoir vegetation. An additional benefit is that the reservoir waters can be pumped back into the farming areas for irrigation purposes during time of drought.

The program is working!!

The massive vegetation mats of the upper headwaters area of the St. Johns River are under control. Acceptable fishing and boating conditions are returning, as well as the aquatic life associated therewith. While the shallow area resulting from earlier silting cannot be corrected, continued silting has all but been eliminated.

With these successes, the script is written and the stage is set for saving a few other `friends' out there. The plan to re-fill the artificially-dug lower Kissimmee River channel and re-route the waters back into the old channels and the natural marsh will obviously go a long way towards saving Lake Okeechobee to the South. And, once the disputes over Okeechobee's farm water retention reservoirs are resolved, the final touches can be applied. Likewise, the 75,000 acres presently under consideration for use as a `nutrient uptake zone' in the Everglades can be expected to make major strides in countering the effects of Man and his ever-continuing `progress'.

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