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Learn About Your Watershed

Lower St. Johns River Watershed

Image of The St. Johns River in downtown Jacksonville
The St. Johns River in downtown Jacksonville

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: 2,646 square miles

Major Cities and Towns: Jacksonville, Jacksonville Beach, Green Cove Springs, Orange Park, Palatka, Atlantic Beach, Bunnell, Neptune Beach, and Crescent City

Counties: Volusia, Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns, Clay, and Duval

Major Water Features: Rivers & Tributaries: Lower St. Johns River, Black Creek, Deep Creek, Sixmile Creek, Etonia Creek, Julington Creek, McCullough Creek, Arlington River, Broward River, Dunns Creek, Ortega River, Trout River, and Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway

Lakes: Crescent Lake, Lake Ross, Cue Lake, Leeds Pond, Lake Disston, Kingsley Lake, Lake Geneva, Lake Lowery, and Doctors Lake

Swamps: Rice Creek Swamp, Twelvemile Swamp, Tiger Hole Swamp, and Pottsburg Creek Swamp

Springs: Wadesboro Spring, Pecks Mineral Spring, Gold Head Branch Springs, Magnolia Spring, Green Cove Springs, Whitewater Springs, Welaka Springs, Nashua Spring, and Satsuma Spring

Overview

Image of The "Jean Ribault," a car ferry named for the French Admiral who landed at the mouth of the river on May 1, 1562 and dubbed it "Rivere du Mai," crosses the St. Johns at Mayport about a mile from the Atlantic Ocean.
The "Jean Ribault," a car ferry named for the French Admiral who landed at the mouth of the river on May 1, 1562 and dubbed it "Rivere du Mai," crosses the St. Johns at Mayport about a mile from the Atlantic Ocean. Russell Sparkman

The Lower St. Johns River is an elongated estuary that extends about 101 miles from its union with the Ocklawaha River to the Atlantic Ocean, and is joined near its mouth by the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW). From Palatka to Jacksonville, the river widens from about one to three miles, with an average depth of less than 10 feet. The channel narrows at Jacksonville and turns eastward to the Atlantic Ocean, deepening to almost 30 feet. The portion of the river from the mouth almost to the Talleyrand Terminal has a federally designated and maintained 38-foot-deep, and 400- to 1,200-foot-wide navigational channel.

Twelve major tributary watersheds contribute flow to the St. Johns River. Most of these tributaries are classified as blackwater streams. Their watersheds range in size from about 32 square miles for the Arlington River to 605 square miles for Crescent Lake/Dunns Creek. A number of small, short streams with limited drainage areas also drain directly to the river. Arlington River, Broward River, Dunns Creek, Trout River, and Ortega River flow through urban Jacksonville.

The hydrology of the Lower St. Johns Basin is highly varied and influenced mainly by the interaction of tide, wind, freshwater flows, and the confines of the river banks and bottom. The Lower St. Johns River and the lower reaches of its tributaries are tidally influenced as far south as Crescent Lake/Dunns Creek, although the greatest tidal effects are felt near the mouth at Jacksonville. Salinity is lowest from Palatka north to Green Cove Springs and increases south of Palatka because of ground water inflows containing salts and calcium.

The largest lake by surface area is Crescent Lake, at 15,960 acres, which is split between Putnam and Flagler Counties. Kingsley Lake, in Clay County, connects to the St. Johns River through tributaries in the Black Creek watershed. Perhaps the largest and deepest of the oligotrophic lakes in Florida, it is nearly perfectly round and about two miles in diameter. Many of the lakes clustered along the Trail Ridge lake region between Interlachen and Keystone Heights have direct connections with the Floridan aquifer.

The St. Johns is one of the few major rivers in the nation that flows north.

Image of About 20 miles south of Jacksonville, the shoreline of the broad and relatively shallow St. Johns is dotted with homes and punctuated by long docks that reach out for hundreds of yards into the deeper waters of the river.
About 20 miles south of Jacksonville, the shoreline of the broad and relatively shallow St. Johns is dotted with homes and punctuated by long docks that reach out for hundreds of yards into the deeper waters of the river. Russell Sparkman

The Lower St. Johns Basin contains both freshwater and saltwater wetlands. Salt marshes are common along the AICW and in the northern end of the watershed. These tidal marshes and creeks provide important nursery areas for saltwater commercial fisheries.

Jacksonville, the only metropolitan area in the basin, has a population of more than one million residents. It is the site of the nation's 14th largest deepwater port and its associated shipbuilding industry. Since World War II, the U.S. Navy has had several bases in Jacksonville. Cecil Field Naval Air Station is now closed, but Jacksonville Naval Air Station and Mayport Naval Station remain active. Flagler continues to be the state's fastest-growing county, although growth has slowed in recent years.

The predominant land uses in the basin are urban and developed, upland forest, wetlands, silviculture, and agriculture. The most developed areas are concentrated in Jacksonville and Palatka. The upland forest mainly consists of pine plantation or silviculture and is distributed fairly evenly throughout the basin. The Trail Ridge along the basin's northwestern boundary is the site of heavy mineral mining, primarily for titanium. Sand and gravel are also mined on the sandy ridges in Clay and western Putnam Counties. Agriculture is concentrated in Flagler, St. Johns, and Putnam Counties in what is known as the Tri-County Agricultural Area (TCAA). Potatoes and cabbage are the primary crops in the 38,000-acre region.

The better-known publicly owned lands in the basin include Haw Creek State Preserve, Gold Head Branch State Park, Ravine State Gardens, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, Ft. Jenning State Forest, Caroline National Monument, Camp Blanding Military Reservation, and Camp Blanding Wildlife Management Area. A number of Outstanding Florida Waters (OFWs) in the basin have also been designated for special protection: Fort Caroline National Memorial, Little Talbot Island State Park (partly in the basin), Nassau Valley State Reserve, Nassau River-St. Johns River Marshes Aquatic Preserve, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park, Upper Black Creek, Kingsley Lake and the North Fork of Black Creek, Ft. Mose, Ravine State Gardens, Caravelle Ranch, Haw Creek State Preserve, and Lake Disston.

Human Impacts

Image of Much of the St. Johns River has experienced rapid growth and the appearance of lawns and bulkheads along its bank that replace native vegetation and contribute to decrease water quality.
Much of the St. Johns River has experienced rapid growth and the appearance of lawns and bulkheads along its bank that replace native vegetation and contribute to decrease water quality. Russell Sparkman

Numerous factors have negatively affected water quality in the Lower St. Johns and its tributaries, including stormwater from residential, commercial, and industrial development, agricultural activities, and domestic wastewater and industrial discharges. Nonpoint sources of pollution generated by human activities may account for as much as 36 percent of the Lower St. Johns Basin's total pollutant load.

In the northern portion of the basin, urban stormwater, septic systems, and point source discharges have led to degraded water quality in both the tributaries and the main stem of the St. Johns River. In Duval County, more than 390 wastewater treatment plants historically discharged to ground water and surface water. Many were small or poorly maintained, and discharges of raw sewage were common.

A program initiated in the 1970s by the city of Jacksonville resulted in the creation of five regional wastewater treatment plants and service areas. The number of treatment plants was reduced to less than 100, with improved treatment, collection systems, and pumping stations. In 1997, the city of Jacksonville's Department of Public Utilities Water and Sewer Operations was merged with the Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA). This has allowed the further removal of smaller plants, the consolidation of wastewater treatment into larger, better-functioning facilities, and the increased reuse of wastewater from the larger treatment plants. JEA now provides more than 80 percent of water and sewer service to residents of Duval County and portions of neighboring St. Johns County.

Image of Industrial activities in the Lower St. Johns River watershed have resulted in the accumulation of a number of toxic pollutants in sediments, including heavy metals and organic contaminants, especially around the urban Jacksonville area.
Industrial activities in the Lower St. Johns River watershed have resulted in the accumulation of a number of toxic pollutants in sediments, including heavy metals and organic contaminants, especially around the urban Jacksonville area. © Russell Sparkman

Agriculture, development, mining, and point source discharges are the primary factors affecting water quality throughout the basin, including the Black Creek, Sixmile Creek, and Julington Creek areas. Julington Creek has experienced numerous changes to streams, including bulkheads and channelization, the erosion of banks, and increased peak flows as a result of stormwater discharges. Stormwater runoff containing fertilizers, sediments and pesticides flows into the St. Johns from farms in the Tri-County Agricultural Area (TCAA) in Flagler, Putnam, and St. Johns counties. The TCAA contributes roughly 40 percent of the spring nitrogen load (from fertilizers) to the freshwater portions of the St. Johns River.

After three decades of developing and implementing water quality improvements, the Lower St. Johns River still has a nutrient problem, evidenced by periodic blue-green algal blooms and fish kills. A number of blooms of marine dinoflagellates, including the toxic species Karenia brevis, are documented in Doctors Lake. A toxin-producing blue-green algae, C. raciborskii, has been found throughout the main stem of the St. Johns River at many locations in comparatively high concentrations, though blooms have not occurred. There is also a possible link between an outbreak of ulcerative fish disease in the Lower St. Johns River in the mid-1980s and the presence of a small, toxic dinoflagellate called Pfiesteria piscicida.

Industrial and residential activities in the Lower St. Johns Basin have resulted in the accumulation of a number of toxic pollutants in sediments, including heavy metals and organic contaminants, especially around the urban Jacksonville area. The highest metal concentrations are in the portion of the river from the Arlington River to Julington Creek, which is not only the freshwater and saltwater mixing zone but also the area with the most residential and industrial development.

In recognition of these impacts, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD), city of Jacksonville, JEA, and local governmental, scientific, educational, and citizen organizations are working to develop strategies for protecting and restoring water quality and quantity in the Lower St. Johns Basin.

Interesting Facts:

  • Lake Disston is likely a relict estuary lake and is the second most highly colored lake in Florida. The color comes from the breakdown of leaf litter and organic matter in the watershed, a natural condition.
  • Cattle were once driven across the river at a narrow place where a marker now stands at the foot of Liberty Street in Jacksonville.
  • The St. Johns is one of the few major rivers in the nation that flows north.
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