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River advocates from the St. Johns Riverkeeper are traveling the 310-mile journey along the St. John's to raise awareness about Florida's waterway issues. They will be making a stop at Wekiva Springs and Rock Springs in Orlando on March 26. Daniela Marin, Central Florida Future

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In the midst of massive fish kills happening across Florida, a group of river advocates traveling the St. Johns River made a stop at Wekiva Springs on March 26 to rally support for Florida’s endangered waterways.

The group of researchers and activists from the St. Johns Riverkeeper are traveling along the 310 miles of the St. Johns to inform citizens about the problems believed to have caused Florida’s current eco-crisis in Indian River Lagoon, where hundreds of fish have turned up dead.

Lisa Rinaman, the St. John’s Riverkeeper, said that Wekiva Springs, which often serves as a getaway for students wanting to leave the city, is a perfect example of an outstanding Florida waterway that is susceptible to many of these threats.

“Wekiva Springs is one of the few places in a very urbanized area that you can get out and experience the real Florida, and unfortunately, even as protected as it is, it’s still experiencing a lot of problems,” Rinaman said.

Wekiva Springs sits at the mouth of the Wekiva River, a river system located along the St. Johns River basin, which constitutes the second largest ecosystem in Florida.

Although there are regulations in place to protect these waters, Rinaman said the river continues to face threats from fertilizer runoff, toxic algal blooms, failing septic tanks and urban sprawl.

“Luckily, there are efforts to protect the river, but once you get the plans in place, you have to make sure that those plans are as restorative as they need to be, and then you have to enforce them,” Rinaman said. “You may have the best plan to restore these waterways on the books, but if it's not enforced, it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Rinaman said that it is up to the citizens who care and value Florida’s waters to advocate for the protection of them and hold the regulatory agencies accountable for implementing regulation.

“It’s about getting energy, getting people and giving the river the loudest voice possible,” she said. “It is our competitive edge as a state and it is in our economic interest to protect these waterways.”

Samuel Sickle, president of IDEAS at UCF, the on-campus organization dedicated to environmental sustainability, said that the group’s most significant on-campus effort in the past year has been rallying support for amendment one in Florida.

The Water and Land Conservation Amendment, which passed at the end of 2014, aims to protect Florida’s waterways and restore damaged ecosystems, but Sickle said that although the amendment passed, the funds have not been properly allocated to set it into action.

“But there’s a lot of activism surrounding the subject, a lot of people are really passionate, and that’s really what we need, for people to stand up and voice their opinion about what’s going on,” Sickle said. “We have to be mindful of what’s going on around us and how we can help the ecology that is being very threatened.”

Ben Williams, one of the original founders of the St. Johns Riverkeeper, who met the group during one of their stops, said that one of the biggest challenges to saving the river is keeping politics out of it, one that activists have been able to overcome significantly.

“This issue is painted as a partisan issue, but we have made significant progress in getting our legislators to understand and offer their support for keeping our water clean, and they know it is an economic asset,” he said. “By keeping it non-partisan and staying united, we have come a long way.”

Williams, who has also been a commercial fisherman for many years, said that for him, the economic value of the river is painfully evident.

“I mean, how can you miss the value of clean air and clean water when it’s producing food and jobs?” he said.

One of the six members of the core group making 13-day journey is Brevard County resident Vince Lamb, an environmentalist who has witnessed the fish kills in his own backyard.

He said the magnitude of the current kills is the worst he has seen in the 42 years he has lived on his mangrove shore property.

“The same thing can certainly happen here, and now is a pretty good time to heighten our awareness and try to protect these waterways,” Lamb said.

The river tour will continue mobilizing support for the cause and inviting community members out at each stop until April 3. Citizens of the St. Johns River watershed can join local community leaders, scientists and elected officials along the way by visiting the website. 

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