We’re killing our rivers

When Abe Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe he reportedly said “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

This because Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” helped fuel popular sentiment to free the slaves.

Too bad she couldn’t likewise free Florida’s St. Johns River.

“The wild untouched banks are beautiful but the new settlements generally succeed in destroying all Nature’s beauty, and give you only leafless, girdled trees, blackened stumps and naked white sand in return,” Stowe, who kept a winter home on the river, lamented in her 1873 book “Palmetto Leaves.”

Flash forward nearly a century and a half, and the 233-mile St. Johns, Florida’s only EPA-designated American Heritage River, is also one of its most endangered. 

“YUK!  Look at my river today.  First time I’ve seen the entire river green. Driving over the Palatka bridge is scary…Hey Gov. DeSantis we need to do something.”

That Facebook post was made last week by Sam Carr, who lives on the river south of Palatka. In a follow up post a few days later, Carr added “The river is still sick…I have come to the conclusion that the dumping of sludge on the headwaters of the SJR is the major difference..

“I call it the Gov. Rick Scott Memorial Algae Bloom.”

Carr knows the St. Johns like an old friend. He fishes it almost daily and has explored its length, tracing the journeys of his hero, William Bartram, the Quaker naturalist whose popular writings and drawings introduced the St. Johns to the rest of the world.

And Carr’s criticism of now U.S. Sen. Scott is not misplaced. During his time as governor Scott gutted funding and staffing for Florida’s water management districts. And he turned the Department of Environmental Protection from a watchdog to a lap dog.

In the meantime, South Florida was running out of places to dump its sewage sludge. So in the past decade nearly 90,000 tons of the stuff has been trucked north and spread on agricultural lands around the headwaters of the St. Johns. 

“What happens, when you dump it in the headwaters, it all flows this direction,” Lisa Rinaman, of St. Johns Riverkeepers, said in a recent PBS interview. “And then there’s more pollution added on to it due to septic tanks in areas, agricultural runoff, urban fertilizers…”

Unfortunately the St. Johns is not alone in its environmental distress. Every time there’s a raw sewage spill in Valdosta, Ga. – which occurs with distressing frequently – the Suwannee River gets a little sicker. The mighty Apalachicola is being robbed of the fresh water it needs to keep its celebrated oyster beds healthy. The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers are poisoned whenever the cesspool formerly known as Lake Okeechobee is lowered to keep its levies from bursting. The Ocklawaha, once a major source of fresh water for the St. Johns, is impounded for the enjoyment of bass fisherman.  

Coming off a terrible year for red tides and blue green algae, Gov. DeSantis is promising to fix all of this. But the Florida Legislature just adjourned without doing anything to retard the pollution sources that are tainting our waters from panhandle to keys.

“It’s really bad and it’s gonna get worse” when summer begins to heat the river up, says Janice Brown-Stallings, who lives on the St. John’s in Welaka. It’s having an “awful impact on fishermen, crabbers, boaters, ecotourism and locals living along the river. Don’t eat anything from the river and certainly don’t swim or ski.”

Where is Harriett Beecher Stowe when Florida needs her?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in The Sun on May 5.

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