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Jacksonville University, JAXPORT launch educational initiative focused on the St. Johns River

 JAXPORT CEO Eric Green speaking about the launch of the new Connected program at JU on Nov. 15, 2021.
Katie Garwood
/
Jacksonville University
JAXPORT CEO Eric Green speaking about the launch of the new Connected program at JU on Nov. 15, 2021.

Jacksonville University and the Jacksonville Port Authority are collaborating on a new initiative called Connected aimed at teaching the public how essential the St. Johns River is to both the environment and the local economy.

Details on the new program, which is being funded by JAXPORT, were announced at JU’s Negaard Rowing Center on Monday, Nov. 15.

JU’s Marine Science Research Institute will provide scientific expertise and educational resources to local schools and community groups participating in the Connected program. Content will cover a range of topics, including ecosystems and wildlife found in the St. Johns River, hydrology and water cycles, the history of the river and the city of Jacksonville as well as the role the St. Johns River plays in the regional economy.

The St. Johns River carries roughly 10 million tons of cargo through JAXPORT every year, generating more than $31 billion in regional economic activity. The St. Johns River is also home to thousands of species, all of which depend on the waterway for survival, and it provides a host of less tangible benefits to nearby communities.

Cargo activity through JAXPORT supports about 138,500 Florida jobs with an average salary of $70,000, which is well above the state average, according to the port authority. Additionally, JAXPORT is one of the nation’s 17 Strategic Seaports, and the only port in Florida, that has been authorized to move military cargo for national defense, foreign humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

“Earlier this year, JAXPORT unveiled a new five-year strategic master plan to guide our port and Northeast Florida into the future. One of the most important aspects of the plan is our commitment to environmental stewardship, and today is a major part of that commitment. The St. Johns River is Northeast Florida's connection to the global economy. A healthy river benefits us all. I am a firm believer that there is a nexus between commerce and environmental protection,” said JAXPORT CEO Eric Green.

“The St. Johns River is the heart of our community,” said Jamie Shelton, president of Best Bet Jacksonville, the previous chairman of JAXPORT’s board of directors and the current chairman of the JU board of trustees. “The Connected partnership…benefits our river through the expertise of JU. It also creates a positive impact on area students who want to learn about the river, its role in connecting us to a global economy and what they can do to protect it. The partnership will also engage our local business community, with resources on how we can all do our parts and be good stewards of the river.”

Related: A century of altering the St. Johns River has left Jacksonville more vulnerable to flooding

Ahead of the launch of the new program, JU’s public opinion research and polling expert, Dr. Raymond Oldakowski, conducted a survey to see where the community stands when it comes to the St. Johns River. Out of the nearly 470 randomly selected people surveyed, nearly 80% said the river was a "very important" asset to the city of Jacksonville. More than 99% of those surveyed said it’s “somewhat” or “very” important for people in Jacksonville to learn about the river. One out of every four respondents said they are “not at all knowledgeable” about what they can do personally to help protect the health of the St. Johns River.

“I would be one of those three of four. We want to change that, and together with the people here today, we will do that,” Shelton said Monday.

The health of the river was ranked as the most important issue to survey participants, beating out the river’s perceived values as a source for jobs, recreation and visual appeal. And while most respondents said government agencies are most responsible for protecting the river, they also said the business community and individuals have an important role to play. More than half of respondents said the river was in “good” health but in need of improvements in some areas, while about 39% said they believe the river needs a “major cleanup.”

“There are extremely encouraging takeaways from this survey: Most people in Jacksonville place a high value on the importance of the river to our community and our economy, and many of us believe in a shared responsibility to protect it,” said Melinda Simmons, an assistant professor of marine science at Jacksonville University, who will lead local outreach and education efforts throughout Northeast Florida. “We know nearly 1-in-4 people simply don’t know enough about what they can do as individuals to improve the health of the river, and with our partners at JAXPORT, we have an opportunity to educate them.”

The most recent State of the River report stresses a need for concern in several areas when it comes to the health of the St. Johns River, but it also points to several positive developments.

Many of the issues plaguing the St. Johns River, including rising levels of salinity and plant die-offs, are being driven by or exacerbated by JAXPORT’s ongoing dredging project, which is expected to be finished by the end of 2022.

Simmons said she and her colleagues at JU would not be talking directly about the dredging as part of the Connected program. “We’re directing those questions towards JAXPORT, but,” she said, “we do talk about the water quality and salinity impacts. Taking down the Rodman Dam could counter some of that and increase the flow to the south.”

Removing the Rodman Dam and restoring the Ocklawaha River, a tributary of the St. Johns, is seen by scientists and environmentalists as one of the best options for mitigating some of the environmental impacts of the dredging. The Army Corps of Engineers, which is conducting the dredging work, points to restoring the Ocklawaha as a way to help offset some of the impacts of the dredging in its own analysis.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.

Copyright 2021 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.