Research Leads the Way to Cleaner Water in the Guana River

In far Northeast Florida, just south of Jacksonville and a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean, the Guana River flows between the mainland and a ridge of barrier islands, providing critical habitat for wading birds, waterfowl, and migratory songbirds. Unfortunately, water quality has declined over the past several decades, but a series of research and restoration efforts will usher this waterway into a new, more resilient era.

For several years, Audubon Florida has been working with local partners to improve water quality in the Guana River System of St. Johns County. The system runs from Lake Vedra in Ponte Vedra Beach south along the coast to the confluence of the Guana and Tolomato Rivers. The Guana River is categorized as an Outstanding Florida Water, and is a central component of the Guana River Marsh Aquatic Preserve and the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM NERR). Improved water quality will benefit wildlife, make recreation safer, and help return a thriving shellfish industry to the region.

In 2017, Audubon Florida began working with staff from the GTM NERR as well as other non-profit organizations (Friends of the GTM NERR and St. Johns County Audubon) on an effort to collect and report water quality data for this neglected system. The primary goal of this project was to collect data that could be used by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to assess the health and safety of the Guana River.

After three years, the Guana River water quality project has reached an important milestone. DEP will be adding three of the region’s water bodies to its list of impaired waters. This is important! Being listed as “impaired” triggers further action towards water quality restoration, including the development of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) to identify pollution sources and reductions needs, plus the development of a Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) to guide restoration activities.

Audubon participates in the “Guana Nutrients: Budgets and Bivalves” project led by the University of Florida and GTM NERR staff. Additionally, Audubon and local partners are exploring opportunities for what DEP calls “alternative restoration plans.” These plans can achieve cleaner water faster than BMAPs, but are less regulatory and require more buy-in and voluntary commitments from those involved.

As research, restoration, and regulatory plans combine, stakeholders across disciplines and county lines will work together to improve water quality for wildlife and people.

This story was published in the Summer issue of Audubon Naturalist.

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