Florida's rivers are in trouble.
That's what the Orlando Sentinel found after a yearlong evaluation of some of the state's biggest and smallest, most urban and remote, cleanest and dirtiest, protected and abused rivers.
Of the 22 rivers studied, from Miami to Pensacola, nearly half are in decline because of pollution from lawns, street runoff, wastewater and agriculture, and because of shrinking flows caused by drought and rising demand for water by cities and industries.
Other rivers in the group, while either stable or improving, are profoundly impaired.
Taking care of rivers is difficult and expensive in a state of nearly 20 million residents and in an era of shrinking government budgets and assaults on environmental regulations. Fixing just two rivers, the Kissimmee and St. Johns, which both originate in Central Florida, has cost $2.5 billion so far. Floridians shell out an additional $1 billion a year to various river-related state agencies.
But the state has a compelling reason to protect its rivers: If Florida's rivers are not healthy, then neither is its water.
The Hillsborough, Peace, St. Johns and Kissimmee rivers, for example, deliver drinking water to the state's biggest metropolitan areas. The Apalachicola nurtures a bay famed for its oysters. The state's giant springs, sources of rivers such as the Silver and the Wekiva, are an unmatched collection of natural treasures. And wilderness areas tied to rivers, such as the Suwannee's and Fisheating Creek's, are awesome, humbling places.
Rivers come from and flow to and through wetlands and lakes. Rivers born at springs join rivers created by wetlands, which then nourish the food webs of coastal estuaries. Rivers are the veins of the state's water-driven environment.
"Once a river or spring touches you and you recognize it as a living, vibrant system, it becomes a part of your life," said Pat Harden, a founder of the Friends of the Wekiva River.
Ups and downs
Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard often says, "I want to get the water right." It's a difficult goal.
Florida is struggling with water pollution and water shortages even as state government has been making unprecedented cuts in the size and strength of its environmental-protection agencies.
Protecting rivers is controversial. Last month, most notably, an impatient federal judge ordered Florida and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finally implement pollution regulations that have been on the books for nearly 15 years. Many state lawmakers and industries have fought the regulations as overly burdensome.
Amid that rules uproar and throughout 2012, the Sentinel asked various state officials whether Florida has been gaining or losing ground in efforts to protect the systems that link and define most of its environment: its rivers.
Nearly all have answered with a variation of: "I don't know."
Of the 22 rivers studied by the Sentinel, many showed clear trends, and it wasn't difficult to determine whether they are getting healthier or sicker.
The $1 billion repair of the Kissimmee, one of the four found to be in some degree of recovery, involves filling in the enormous canal built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s and restoring the river's natural, sinuous channel as it flows from Osceola County to Lake Okeechobee. Project scientist Lawrence Glenn said the work is restarting the "liquid heart" of what was once "a mini-Amazon."
Meanwhile, Orlando's Wekiva has gotten sicker. The Indian River — the riverlike lagoon along Florida's east coast — has been rocked by persistent and destructive algae blooms. The Wakulla near Tallahassee is plagued with dark, tannic water. Health authorities warn nearly every year that algae blooms in the Caloosahatchee in South Florida are toxic.
"We have a definite trend toward degrading water," said Rae Ann Wessel, a defender of the Caloosahatchee and member of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.
Among the more difficult rivers to judge were the Apalachicola and Choctawhatchee. Both Panhandle rivers were found to be getting worse by the Sentinel, though Florida DEP officials say their water-quality data show no decline in either river's health.
In most respects, those rivers do have clean water, said Joe Hand, who retired recently after 35 years as a top DEP water-quality analyst. The Sentinel sought his assistance to study each of the 22 rivers.
What's not well-reflected in the water-quality data, however, is the core plight of the Apalachicola: It doesn't have enough water, both because of drought and because of withdrawals in Georgia and Alabama. Its wetlands are wasting away, and Apalachicola Bay, according to recent warnings by alarmed state officials, is getting too salty and is now on the verge of biological collapse.
The Choctawhatchee is choking on sand and silt from agriculture, timber cutting and unpaved roads in Alabama, according to a leading defender of the river and to one of the river's residents, H.T. Brown, whose family members have lived and worked on the Choctawhatchee for four generations.
"The river north of Highway 20 used to have a rock bottom, and now it's filled with sand and mud," Brown said.
According to Hand's analysis, the Choctawhatchee suffers from the state's worst case of "turbidity," a haziness in the water caused by muddy runoff.
Eight of the 22 rivers aren't changing significantly in either direction, according to a consensus of experts consulted by the Sentinel and to Hand's data trends. Among these "stable" rivers, however, is the Fenholloway, in Florida's Big Bend region, which has been repulsive since the 1950s because of paper-mill pollution. The pollution's intensity has lessened in recent years, but the river remains an aquatic zombie.
Florida's rivers were once its main transportation network, carrying people and commerce by boat from places such as Jacksonville to Sanford on the St. Johns and from Fort Myers to Kissimmee on the Caloosahatchee and Kissimmee rivers. But now they are so removed from daily life that many Floridians would struggle just to name the river closest to their home.
In a state crisscrossed by both waterways and highways, rivers are experienced most often through the window of a moving car. The Loxahatchee is barely noticeable beneath Interstate 95 in Palm Beach County, the Miami's drawbridges simply annoy baseball fans going to Marlins games, and the St. Johns is a curious blip for Orlandoans headed to the beach.
But from a kayak, the Loxahatchee is a cathedral, with a floor of amber water, walls of cypress trees and a ceiling of green canopy, while the Miami might not be much of a natural river but is one of the most energizing, entertaining and intensely visual outdoors locations in Florida. The St. Johns is probably the most ecologically complex river in the state, coming to life in a semitropical climate near Vero Beach before flowing north for 310 miles to a more temperate climate, where it spills into the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville.
The variety hardly stops there. The Wekiva thrives with so many turtles — one of the state's biggest populations — that seemingly every low log is bumpy with shells. In South Florida, Fisheating Creek curls about as a tea-colored ribbon between gnarled, gnomish cypress trees that seem about to growl.
Each of those rivers — and most other rivers in the state — experienced epic insults in past decades, typically from sewage plants and power shovels.
Dredges clawed the Apalachicola without mercy, crippling its sloughs, or creeks, while the Loxahatchee's forest was poisoned by seawater that invaded after repeated dredgings to make Jupiter Inlet's access to the Atlantic Ocean deeper and wider.
In the Orlando area, sections of Shingle Creek and the Little Wekiva and Little Econlockhatchee rivers were turned into giant culverts to carry away subdivisions' rainfall. A growing metro area also filled those rivers with poorly treated sewage — common practice at the time.
Jim Hulbert, a state biologist who for decades worked on ways to assess rivers' health, documented how repulsive they had become by the late 1960s.
Suds generated by sewage in the Little Econ drifted like snow flurries across State Road 50. The water in Shingle Creek and the Little Wekiva thickened with bacteria that looked like toilet paper. River ecologies were taken over by rat-tailed maggots and sludge worms that bore headfirst into the mud, their tails exposed like threads of shag carpet.
"You wouldn't have gone canoeing," Hulbert said. The rivers were that unappealing.
Even the mighty St. Johns was feared. Environmental activist Linda Young remembers an uncle who took her family sightseeing along the river docks in Jacksonville.
"He would say, 'If you kids don't behave, I'm going to throw you into there, and you'll die of a hundred different diseases,' " Young recalled. "We'd be standing on those docks, and I'd be thinking, 'Oh, my God, you'll die just from falling in?'¿"
Fortunately for Florida's rivers, the environmental horrors of the 1960s were followed by an awakening across the U.S. in the 1970s and '80s, said Jim Stevenson, a retired chief naturalist for the state.
"Those were golden years for environmental protection," Stevenson said.
Florida was prodded by regulations and grants that flowed from the momentous Clean Water Act, a federal law that recently had its 40th anniversary. For example, Orlando built its advanced Iron Bridge Water Reclamation Facility in the early 1980s, and the Little Econ is dramatically better off today as a result.
The state launched its Save Our Rivers program, which would be used to acquire 1.7 million acres of open space to protect river basins. Restorations of the Kissimmee and St. Johns, ongoing for decades, are among the most ambitious in the world.
The hazards faced by rivers today, while less obvious, Stevenson said, are more potent, even as the state has dramatically scaled back its environmental-lands purchases and the strength of its water-management agencies.
One of the less-obvious enemies now is nutrient pollution, which spills off lawns as dissolved fertilizer; seeps into the aquifer from septic tanks; and bleeds into wetlands from cattle ranches, citrus groves and farms. Nutrient pollution can overwhelm a river's ecology, as in the case of the Silver River near Ocala, by triggering invasions of weeds and algae.
The other enemies: climate change and drought, exacerbated by all the water taken each day from the state's aquifers and rivers by utilities and agricultural operations in Florida and Georgia.
The Wekiva River, one of two U.S. Wild and Scenic rivers in Florida, is nevertheless polluted by nutrients, and in recent years its water flow has shriveled to the minimum its ecology can tolerate, according to state officials.
Defenders of the state's other Wild and Scenic River, the Loxahatchee, are begging for a small but guaranteed supply of fresh water from nearby canals in South Florida. The water is needed during the dry season to keep at bay the seawater that otherwise kills the Loxahatchee's wetlands.
Peace River in Polk County temporarily dies of thirst every dry season, nutrient pollution in the Kissimmee is killing Lake Okeechobee, and the North Florida springs that feed the magnificent Suwannee are in decline.
Ed Lowe, top scientist at the St. Johns River Water Management District, warns that increasing use of fertilizer, plus population growth and climate change, are making river protection so daunting that simply preventing further decline could be a victory.
Case in point: The St. Johns is no longer in a death dive thanks to a colossal restoration, yet it remains seriously ill.
"Big stretches of the river are stable," Lowe said. "I take that as a measure of success."
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