Water’s Journey: The River Returns


Major funding provided by the St. Johns
River Water Management District, with assistance from the Florida Department
of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Florida Department of Education, and the
Florida Department of Environmental Protection. This is a story of America’s first river. Before English or Spanish was spoken here,
people lived on its banks. Before man, huge prehistoric animals walked its shores. Before history was recorded, civilization flourished here. It was called the river of lakes by the Seminole
Indians, the river of currents by the Spanish, the river of May by the French. Today, it is known as Florida’s St. Johns
River. Explorer aquanauts Wes Skiles, Jill Heinerth, and Tom Morris…they have taken
up a quest to follow the journey of water all over our planet. They’ve traveled below the ground to trace the
connective path of water through the landscape. They have chased the ocean’s flow through melting icebergs. Now they’re looking at a totally different
challenge, trying to help people understand their connection
to a modern river, running right through the middle of urban America. Join a team of scientists and modern explorers on a journey of discovery, as they travel to the source of the great
St. Johns River to see man’s impacts and find out what is being done to protect this river for generations to come. Many great rivers start high in the mountains. The St. Johns River is somewhat unique in that it
gathers its waters from a wide expanse. The river is born from a vast marsh just north of
the Everglades, and further downstream, large springs, lakes, and tributaries contribute
to its flow. And, like many rivers on our planet, it winds its way through great cities, backyards,
and industries finally joining the sea east of Jacksonville. It flows south to north. Its entire 310-mile length has
been designated an American Heritage River. The journey begins at the mouth of the river
on the Mayport ferry. Mile marker 1. We’re beginning our journey on the St. Johns,
with the smell of the ocean in the air. I’m really excited to be hooking up with the rest of the team and starting our journey upstream. More than 50 people will be helping the
expedition leaders with everything from camera equipment to camping gear. In total, the river flotilla will include
two riverboats, two skiffs, two canoes, five kayaks, three airboats. And to address the issue of seeing the river
from a high vantage point, They’ve come up with a unique solution. Pilots Ron Thorstad and Bob Tillman
join the convoy with their peculiar, flying inflatable boats, “fibs” for short. Part boat, part plane, these unusual hybrids will allow
the team to take to the air at a moment’s notice. They thread their way upstream, passing through
Jacksonville. It is a city of more than a million people,
and the river is why this city became a city. Just south of Jacksonville, they enter a stretch
of the river where scientists have been tracking high levels of pollution. River systems like the St. Johns receive much of their waters from creeks and
streams that run through every aspect of our lives. These tributaries carry with them runoff contaminants that wreak havoc on life
within the river and create potentially serious health issues for the public. This is tri-county ag. Let’s get the fibs ready. Environmental Scientist Pam Livingston Way joins Biologist Tom Morris. They paddle upstream to the source of the pollution. So Deep Creek is one of the hot spots as far
as uh…tributaries that take a lot of nutrients
to the St. Johns River. It’s draining many, many acres of uh…potato fields and cabbage fields
here in the Hastings area. One of the greatest boons to mankind was the
introduction and widespread use of chemical fertilizers. With such fertilizers, farmers can grow more
crops and feed millions of people, but for the river, there is a downside. Agriculture and urban runoff, leaky septic
systems, and sewage discharges share something in common. They all deliver nutrients and organic substances
which act as powerful fertilizers. Much of it ends up in the river, causing algae
to grow very quickly. When runoff goes unmanaged, it can trigger
algae blooms. Algae blooms block out the sun, causing underwater
grasses to die. Without grasses, underwater creatures that use them for food,
shelter, and spawning die. Birds and animals that rely on them for food
have less to eat. Decomposing algae uses up oxygen in the water. Without enough oxygen in the water, more organisms
die off. A growing population speeds up eutrophication
by increasing the amount of harmful substances, like fertilizers, that soak into the ground and reach the
river. Pam works with farmers, manufacturers, and state
agencies to develop best management practices, or BMPs, to help manage that runoff. So we’ve gone from Deep Creek right up into Canal
No. 1, and you can see the obvious problems here, I mean, uh… and this is what we’re trying to treat with
our wetland treatment and our…our pond. The idea is to capture runoff and direct it
into a series of settling ponds. So, Tom, this is our 19-acre wet retention pond. It has about 37 days of residence
time. After water leaves the retention pond, it enters the wetland marsh, where other
contaminants are absorbed by plants and trees, and the runoff returns to the river cleansed. Farmers are in business because they love farming. They care about the land. They care about what
they’re doing. And I’m of the personal belief that there’s a
lot of culture in the word agriculture, and I think we need
to keep that here in Florida. Other best management practices have been
designed to give farmers economical ways to conserve resources while protecting their investment. New slow-release fertilizers are one of the
most promising recent developments. So what’s great about this control-release
technology is that its engineered…these pearls are engineered to release as the plant needs it over the
season, and so, if it’s releasing as the plant needs it,
that means there’s less uh…in the environment that has the potential to leach
into the watershed. This is really an excellent project. Uh, we need more of this kind of stuff in our agricultural
areas, to keep those nutrients on the agricultural fields …and out of places like the St. Johns River. But what few people realize is that much of the contamination does not
come from farms. Instead, it is coming from our manicured lawns and businesses. Ponce de Leon searched Florida in pursuit
of the Fountain of Youth, and that quest still attracts explorers today. So we’re finally here in the land of the springs, Tom. Yeah, yeah, my favorite part of the river …are these middle reaches. Springs are usually among the purest sources
of freshwater in the world, but this spring is different. Instead of pure freshwater, Silver
Glen Springs pumps out brackish water. It is an underwater oasis salty enough to
support ocean life in the middle of a freshwater river. The cave diving team will attempt what few others
have accomplished… a scientific dive to carry a special probe that will profile the unique water chemistry found
here. Their data will reveal an important picture
of the aquifer and shed light on the source of elevated salt
levels in the spring. Underwater, they encounter proof of the elevated
levels of salt emerging from deep within the aquifer. Normally found only in salt water, blue crabs
and stingrays are found here year-round. Okay, Tom, I got you on comps, let’s go.
From the start, the going is tough. The divers face a current the equivalent of hurricane-force winds. Only it isn’t wind, but millions of gallons
of water trying to push them back. Oh, Jill, we’re goin’
to have to work hard, getting in here today. The flow is so intense the divers approach
their penetration more like rock climbers, relying on handholds to make forward progress.
I have to wedge myself every inch of the way. For 40 years, scientists have studied the water
at the mouth of the spring, but the divers know there are multiple sources of water, fresh and brackish, that are being mixed together
when they come to the surface. Their goal is to be the first people to locate
and measure the chemistry at these unique vents. Hey, Jill, the line is busted up ahead.
…Oh, man! While exploring this cave, Tom had laid a safety line to find his
way out of the darkness. Vitally important to the safety of these divers, that line has been ripped away by the current. They are now forced to find their route
through the crisscrossing tunnels while laying new guideline. Progress is slow, but they press on through the blackness. After over one hour of agonizingly slow
progress…it’s like the eye of the hurricane… the current eases before it drops away, and
they enter a room of dramatic proportions. Wow, what
an amazing room! You can fit a 10-story building in here. Florida’s geologic history is a story of the
evolution of the ocean. The fossilized deposits that were laid down
over time are revealed here for the divers to see.
Incredible! Jill carries a probe capable of collecting
a variety of real-time data on salinity, temperature, depth, conductivity, and pH. Wow, there’s a bunch of them! The divers think that they will find the oldest and saltiest water from the deepest vents.
All right, I got us at 137 feet. The gathered data reveals that the waters
mixed here have very different histories. The freshwater pumping out of this spring
is around 30 years old. Yeah, this is a bigger one that’s got
saltier water coming out of it. Get that baby well up into the vent. Okay, I’m with you. But isotope dating of the
relic seawater revealed that it was between 13,000 and
18,000 years old. Okay, I got the sample, Tom. When sea levels fell during the last ice age,
the Floridan aquifer was flooded with seawater, and some of that water remains trapped within
pockets in the rock. Okay, good, we got what we’re after. Let’s get out of here. It’s along way back to that entrance.
Yeah… Time is pressing on. They must adhere to strict air rules that
reserve two-thirds of their gas for the exit from the cave. Jill, make sure you get centered
on this little tunnel, because that current is going to shoot you like a bullet down a gun barrel. Their next destination: a first-magnitude spring at the center of the
dialogue that will help define the delicate balance between the needs of society and
the needs of local watersheds and the wildlife within them. Along the eastern shore, they arrive at Blue
Spring. The West Indian manatee makes these springs
its winter home. Manatees can weigh in excess of 3,000
pounds, and their closest relative is the elephant. Mothers nurse their young for a long period,
and the calf may remain dependent on its mother for up to two years. Researchers believe this mother-child bond
continues for much of the manatees’ life. Well, its within this spring that one of our biggest debates in Florida is growing: It pits the use of water by society against the need of water by our natural ecosystems. Manatees have no natural predators but are still an endangered species. Because of the effect man has had on their
habitat, there are fewer than 3,000 West Indian manatees left in the
United States. Springs get their water from relatively local
sources known as springsheds, fed by local rains. Groundwater that is pumped out of the ground
for development is water that will no longer reach the springs and river. In order to sustain both the habitat and a
reasonable amount of development, a strategy called minimum flows and levels is recommending limits
on the withdrawal of groundwater. If the limits are maintained, development and the manatee should be able to coexist
in harmony. We’ve been looking at trying to protect
primarily those areas that are directly associated with the river, and that may be a little bit like looking at what’s coming out of the end of
the pipe. Maybe it’s time we start looking at what’s
going into the pipe. I think we need to go upland into the tributaries, which are really the lifeblood of the entire river. They’re traveling upstream on the Wekiva River. Despite the fact that the Wekiva is the best protected tributary along the
entire St. Johns system, it’s what’s upstream in the watershed that really matters. This is pretty spectacular. It’s hard to believe we’re practically in the
backyards of Orlando here. Yeah, is that little tributary
you were talking about up this way? Yeah, let’s check it out… see how far we can get into the development. People who live along this tributary no doubt
love the natural beauty in their backyard, but unknowingly, their actions can threaten it. Well, plus all those lawns that people are fertilizing and throwing
pesticides on, right up there, I mean, that’s washing directly in here, and this is a direct conduit to the St.
Johns River. Like the farmers downstream, the people who live here need to stop
the unregulated runoff of pollutants. Fertilizers that make their lawns grow, but can be bad for the river. Tom and Jill have explored tributaries around
the world… watch your step here, Jill, there’s a lot of rocks… but never one like this. Well, this is really different. This is different. Now just about every urban creek is plumbed through culverts and channels like this.
Careful there, Jill, it’s real slippery. No kidding! Oh, oh. All right. They’re traveling through a
complex grid of storm water drains that helps safeguard
communities from flooding. These concrete conduits have replaced the natural
filtration network that used to convey water to the aquifer and local creeks. They carry breathing gear in case of toxic fumes, and will have radio contact with the surface. It’s team member Simon Manses’ job to
Follow their exploits from topside. Jill, is this you down here? You know, people don’t realize that everything
that comes off of the roads and highways ends down here in these pipes and eventually
to the creeks and rivers and tributaries. Oh, look at this up here. These are really
neat formations. It looks just like a real cave. That’s real… Yeah, it sure is. It’s picking up calcium
somewhere, either out of the pipe itself or up above. It’s forming little stalactites. So there’s
life in the old drainage pipe. Jill, did you bring a watch with you? Yeah. How long have we been down here? Oh, a couple of hours. We’ve gone a good mile at least. Hello, Jill, do you copy? …Let me just call him first. Hey, Simon. Simon, this is Jill. We seem to be
really close to a roadway, because I hear a lot of cars. Can you see us? I’m underneath a big grate, a big
rectangular one? Okay, this could be it right here.
Let’s see. Hold on. Do you see me? Oh, yeah. All right. Oh, yea. I see you.
Hello, Simon. Hey! How’s the weather down there?
Cool. A little wet and a little cool. We’re getting a lot of runoff down here,
that’s for sure. So we’re going to continue onwards from this point. All right. Well, I guess I’ll see yea at the next
hole, then? Okay, Simon. All right. Here’s another one. Another intersection. Oh, man, it kills me to stand up. This has got a pretty good set of steps. …Let me see where we are. Hello, Jill, Tom. Do you copy? Oh, no. They’re not down there. Hello, Jill, Tom. Hello? Jill, Tom? Hey, Simon. Simon. Oh, don’t get run over.
Oh, color, greenery, it’s blue sky. People that live here are used to storm drains, but it’s hard for them to imagine that they
are part of a mighty river. Why are you down… down in the street?
I mean, rivers are usually… Well, we really wanted to trace the source of the St. Johns River and so
we’ve been traveling the length of the river, and trying to follow every little tributary to
see how it connects… Well, can you go by boat, or do you have to crawl? Oh, our boat’s about a couple of miles that way. And the headwaters are where? Well, you know, in a way, this is a headwater…uh,
rain that falls on this parking lot and on the streets comes rushing on down into these stormwater
drains and it’s carried on down to a creek where we left our canoes a couple of miles away and then
on down to the Wekiva River and all the way to St. Johns. So it’s…it’s uh, it’s hydrologically connected. Is there some kind of a filtration system or anything that’s… You know, all that water
that used to soak into the soil here doesn’t do that anymore. It just runs off rapidly and shoo…down the pipes and out into the streams. It’s kind of funky in here, isn’t it?
They’re still not at the start of the tributary, so Tom and Jill go back underground. Here it is, Jill, the light at the end of the tunnel. After many miles, they have finally reached
one source of the St. Johns, and it isn’t pretty. Trapped behind shopping carts. Oh, man, it going to feel good to stand up,
if I can stand up. Ah, whew. Wow. All right. We’re out. Well, what do you think? You know, this is a prime example of how people just don’t get it. But it’s not shopping carts and trash causing
the problems. Individual homeowners fertilize their lawns,
as do their neighbors and their neighbor’s neighbors. Added together, tons of fertilizer soak into
the ground and head to the lowest point, the river. This unrealized, cumulative impact is
perhaps the biggest challenge facing rivers today. Our future also depends on developers and
homeowner associations working together to adopt more eco-friendly bylaws instead of their old perceptions of a perfect
yard. Having traveled over a 170 miles, they
reach the end of easily navigable waters. We’re at about mile marker 170. The
river is 310, so we’re a little over halfway of the journey, at this point. So I think, you know, what the strategy may
be, you know, based on the difficulty and navigation is to get us as far as…as we
can get and then…uh, we’ll downsize. We’ll make our way south from there in a smaller craft. As eyes for their navigation, Wes and Bob take to the sky. This is the only
way to go, Captain Bob, flying boats. For the team to be successful, they will have
to negotiate over a 130 miles of shallow-graded marsh. At speeds up to 50 miles per hour, they race south through a maize of lakes connected by a series of broad
floodplains. In the early 1900s, this part
of Florida held significant economic potential for farming. The only problem was the land was easily flooded
by the constant fluctuations of the river. E. Nelson Fell, a New Zealander and engineer, saw the vast floodplain as wasted land
that could be tamed. Attracting a small group of investors, he launched
one of the largest individual drainage projects ever conceived. He built a fleet of enormous dredges and
plows to drain the St. Johns’ marsh and convert it into farmland. When completed, he had transformed over a 125
square miles and, unknowingly, cut off the headwaters
of the river, forever altering the watershed. It was a time of industrial innocence when
government, businesses, and citizens had little concept of environmental consequences. Hurricanes spawned public outcry for the
federal government to take further flood control measures. The river lost much of its vitality and
life, and polluted runoff began to heavily impact
the river and marsh. In many ways, it’s very similar to the challenges
facing the Everglades. By the 1970s, scientists and environmentalists
began to understand that the natural floodplain had to be restored. Well, this is the, uh… what we call the Farm 13 Stick Marsh,
right in the middle of a…150… 160,000 acres of restoration, which really is the second-largest restoration
in the entire world right now. Only the Everglades… uh…rivals this in form and size. Water from nearby citrus groves and livestock
pastures is now discharged into large reservoirs which keep nutrient-rich runoff from directly
entering the marsh. Local aquatic plants help metabolize nutrients
and other waste found in the runoff. And that effort is bringing new life into the headwaters of the St. Johns River. Water is once again cleansed as it sheetflows across the vast floodplain marshes. Lost habitat has been renewed, and fish and wildlife are returning. Hey, guys, we’re at the coordinates that put as in the heart of the true
headwaters of the St. Johns. The rain that falls here in the vast floodplains
slowly moves down into the river watersheds, where it is joined by a magnificent maize of lakes and
magical water welling up from the springs downstream. This whole trip has… has just really turn me around again…really revitalized my whole spirit. I really love this river. In this experience on the St. Johns, I got a
true sense of the three-dimensional qualities of this river and how it’s fed by branches
from underground and by branches and tendrils that reach way back into urban societies, and I started this journey thinking that we were going on a quest… a quest to find the true source of this river, and what I discovered is
that that source is everywhere. It’s in every home. It’s in every development.
It’s through every person, and all of our actions have an influence on the water quality that
we experience from this river. The goal just simply has to be the… to lessen the impact we’re having as humans
on these environments, and we can do that. We really can. We can learn to use less fertilizers
in our yards. We can use less water. Uh, we can be more conscientious of how we divert waters into these systems, and if we do these simple things, we can actually improve the water quality and improve the
health of the entire river. It makes sense. People will only protect what they love, and through understanding, lies hope to return watersheds worldwide to more pristine days. Major funding provided by the St. Johns
River Water Management District, with assistance from the Florida Department
of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Florida Department of Education, and the
Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

6 thoughts on “Water’s Journey: The River Returns

  1. Thank you for your interest in Water's Journey: The River Returns. The sinkholes and springs shown in the video can be found in central Florida (Orlando area). Scenes of the St. Johns River were photographed along the entire length of the river, from its headwaters in Indian River and Brevard counties, Florida, to its mouth at Mayport.

  2. Great video. It's my neck of the woods as I routinly fish the St Johns between Lake Beresford and Lake Harney. A lot have happened since this was filmed though…

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