September 22, 2008

River: Toxic Algae is Issue

By Steve Patterson

GAINESVILLE - Taking too much water from the St. Johns River could fuel toxic algae blooms and suck water from underground aquifers, scientists meeting Sept. 17 said.

But it could be two years before they will be ready to agree exactly how much withdrawal would have to happen to become a real problem.

It's the central question behind research that's still evolving while communities from Jacksonville to Central Florida feud over proposals to use the river's vast flow for lawn-watering and drinking water.

The St. Johns River Water Management District opened a two-day symposium Wednesday to talk about early findings from ongoing research and the questions they need to answer.

"We want to ensure that this analysis is open and transparent," said Ed Lowe, the district's director of environmental science.

"I think we really need to disenthrall ourselves from any preconceived notions," Lowe said. "And if we're going to do this right, we're going to need to really, really think hard."

The water management district has considered plans to let utilities take up to 262 million gallons of water daily out of the St. Johns and the Ocklawaha River, its largest tributary. That idea has alarmed many critics and inspired a legal challenge; a hearing is next month.

One of the most active critics said public opinion pushed the district to look closer.

"Had it not been for the public, none of this would have happened," said Neil Armingeon of the St. Johns Riverkeeper organization.

The wide range of potential impacts has been parceled out to a series of scientific committees. Their work will be reviewed in phases by scientists organized through the National Research Council.

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