Ron Littlepage

Readers of this column know that I’m not a fan of the St. Johns River Water Management District in its current form or of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But both deserve congratulations on the completion of the St. Johns River Upper Basin Project, which was officially celebrated this week.

The massive undertaking was designed to correct decades of human interference in the natural system when marshes were drained to create agricultural land and water was diverted from the river to the Indian River Lagoon, harming both bodies of water.

The water management district and the corps joined forces in 1977 to begin the restoration project.

Reubin Askew was governor then. Earlier in his term, the state’s water management districts were created to protect the state’s waters. Askew got it when it came to the environment.

Looking back at his time in office, Askew once said: “I felt strongly that if we allowed environmentally sensitive areas to be compromised or filled in, then Florida would lose much of its character and sustainability.”

The governors who followed Askew generally understood the importance of protecting Florida’s fragile natural resources.

That hasn’t been the case with Gov. Rick Scott, who has reversed many of the environmental protections his predecessors put in place.

When Scott was elected, much of the Upper Basin Project was on the road to completion.

It likely would never have started under him. That alone illustrates the importance of choosing the right leaders.

By the 1970s, 62 percent of the marshes in the upper basin had been lost.

Canals diverted water that would have naturally flowed into the St. Johns east to the Indian River Lagoon.

That influx of freshwater changed the nature of the lagoon, which had been considered one of the most ecologically diverse estuaries in the world.

As part of the restoration project, the district purchased 73,000 acres that had been farmland, and the corps began engineering new marshes, flood control structures and reservoirs that would help cleanse the water before flowing back into the St. Johns.

Now after 40 years of work and $260 million in state and federal money, the project is complete with the district assigned the job of operation and management of the system.

I’ve had the good fortune to tour the upper basin with district officials several times to see the work that was being done.

The result of that work is impressive, and the restoration has created a spectacular haven for fish, birds and wildlife.

And I won’t hold it against the district official who took a turn too fast in the airboat we were in and dumped us into the water.

Yes, those were alligators lining the banks.

Redirecting the flow away from the Indian River Lagoon will not only reduce the freshwater going there, the amount of nutrients that feed harmful algae blooms entering the lagoon should also be reduced.

However, much work still needs to be done to save the lagoon from the devastating conditions that have been so apparent the last few months.

And putting more freshwater into the St. Johns should help the river’s health.

But there’s always a catch these days.

The district is planning to take more water out of the St. Johns to meet the needs of out-of-control development in Central Florida than the Upper Basin Project will put into the river.

Have to keep those lawns green, you know.

And that, of course, will impact the health of the St. Johns River as it finally makes its way, abused and overused, through Jacksonville and to the Atlantic Ocean.

You would think that after four decades of work and spending a quarter billion dollars to undo the results of messing with natural systems, the state would learn.

At this particular time, you would be wrong. (904) 359-4284