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In Praise of Our River

I was reminded again on Saturday just how lucky we are to have the river that runs through our city. I spent a couple of hours, as I am lucky enough to do from time to time, just cruising from the mouth of the river up to Clapboard Creek, and in just those five miles or so of the 310 mile river, you can really get a sense how important it is to our community, and why it deserves our protection.

Clapboard Creek, for those who might not be familiar with it, lies just east of the Dames Point Bridge. A low fixed bridge carries Heckscher Drive across the entrance of the creek, which is part of the Timucuan Preserve. Traveling just north of the bridge, and beyond the small marina, is like stepping several hundred years back in time. The marsh is undisturbed, and there were several snowy egrets fishing in the shallows. My boat was the noisiest thing in the creek until a couple of others came downstream to the bridge.

Crab pot buoys did a fair job of marking the channel, but I was glad to have a charting GPS and sounder. The kayaker needed no such help, paddling quietly along the creek’s eastern shore.

So here is one of thousands of spots where the river shows her ancient side, largely undisturbed.

Back out in the main river, watercraft ranging from small skiffs to oceangoing freighters share the river, it would seem largely without incident.  The river represents commerce, still part of a transportation system that moves enormous quantities of goods around the planet. It’s well accepted that the port here will, for the foreseeable future, be a linchpin to the region’s economy.

The port already supports some 65,000 jobs in the region, and is estimated to bring thousands more as more and bigger ships call on Jacksonville as the economy (hopefully) improves. That growth is likely to be slower now than might have been anticipated two or three years ago, but long term, if the port is properly managed and developed, and the infrastructure improvements are made, the investment should pay off in a better overall economy for the region.

Everywhere, there were boats pulled out of the main channel with lines in the water. With conditions offshore too rough for all the but most intrepid fishermen, the river, the creeks, and the Intracoastal Waterway were all dotted with boats with anglers seeing what was biting. On a rising tide, there were boats rafted together and pulled up on sandy shores along the ICW, families and friends getting together to fish and swim and enjoy the river and its tributaries.

But a boat isn’t necessary to access the river.

All along the road leading to Mayport, and further east on the north bank of the river, cars were parked on or very near the sand, and people were swimming and fishing and just enjoying what is one of our most precious natural resources. This is one of the reasons a clean and healthy river is so important. We want a river that can support a healthy fish population, and that people are not concerned about wading into the water to cool off on a 90 degree July day.

Something that always catches my eye when I venture out into the Atlantic Ocean is the influence of the river water on the ocean.  There is always a very clear line of demarcation where the silt-and-tannin-laden water from the St. Johns gives way to the cleaner water of the Atlantic. It is a very clear representation of exactly how much is carried by the river to the sea. And on this day, on a rising tide, you could watch the water change color at the mouth of the river as the cleaner ocean water moved inshore up the river.

Sometimes you just have to see it to be able to really appreciate it.

I know it’s not a controversial position to say the St. Johns River needs protection. I’ve been hearing it since I came to Jacksonville a decade ago, and while it is surely cleaner and healthier than it was back in the middle part of the last century, the algae blooms, fish kills, and trash along the river’s banks tell us there is a long way to go. I’ve had occasion to fly over portions of the middle section of the river near Green Cove Springs on several occasions already this summer, and the algae blooms are particularly evident from the air.

The river is one of Jacksonville’s biggest selling points. It offers commerce and recreation, not to mention spectacular views. But if we’re not good stewards of this resource, it can quickly shift from asset to liability.

We’ve all heard stories about the Cuyahoga river in Cleveland catching fire in the 1960’s, and while that is an extreme, it’s not something that would have been included on a Chamber of Commerce brochure, either. The little things we can all do can add up to a lot when it comes to our river. If you don’t think they’re worth doing, find a way to spend a couple of hours getting acquainted with the water. That’s pretty much all it will take to change your mind.

2 Responses »

  1. W00t for the river!

  2. The river is important, but more important than the city/county will acknowledge. Citizen access is afforded in few places, where tax dollars purchased enough land for a boat ramp, or funds were used to create a fee area, such as the photo above shows. Access to the shores of the St. Johns, Trout River, Doctor's inlet, and other tributaries are minimal, and punctuated with ample, intimidating, "thou shalt nots." Without a boat, a conveyance that many families can still not afford, the day at the river entails a long automobile trip in search of small, free, areas where a blanket can be spread and young children can play, safe from swirling currents, predation or fear of trespassing.