Kevin Spear- Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer


Biologist Jon Shenker’s nets contain an unusual haul of fish that could help resolve Central Florida’s water war with its neighbors to the north.Each of the days-old American shad in his catch looks like a “white sliver with tiny eyeballs” at less than a quarter-inch long, he says. Yet, they’re considered trophies when it comes to understanding the St. Johns River.

By studying the fish, Shenker hopes to unravel some of the fundamental ecology of a river that’s targeted to become the next major drinking fountain for fast-growing cities of Central Florida. Shenker and others hope to learn how such demands on the river would affect its life chain.

“One thing that surprises me is that nobody has ever done this kind of study,” said Shenker of the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne.

Central Florida utilities want to tap the middle reaches of the 310-mile St. Johns River for as much as 150 million gallons daily for drinking water and irrigation. Fighting that plan is a coalition of environmentalists, politicians and residents of the Jacksonville area, where the river makes a scenic turn to the Atlantic Ocean.

The conflict now embroils lawyers, public-relations consultants, county and city legal staffs, a small but stubborn environmental group and a judge. A showdown state administrative hearing over a proposed Seminole County withdrawal is set for this fall.

What happens to fish?

When discussion of the water war came up, Shenker all but poked his fingers into his ears to block out details.

“I’m staying out of the politics,” he said. “I’m here to find out what the fish are doing. They [politicians] can take what I find and fight for it or against it.”

The St. Johns River Water Management District is paying $300,000 for the two-year study. The state agency has long said that the river can safely give up a quarter-billion gallons of water daily.

But the uproar from North Florida opponents, who fear withdrawals would cause harm, brought agency officials to concede they need to know more. Among new efforts, the water agency has hired outside scientists for fresh consideration of potential harm to river water, wetlands and wildlife.

As far as what happens to baby fish, Steve Miller, a biologist at the water agency, said he and colleagues initially looked at research on riverside power plants that use huge amounts of water for cooling. Some data suggested fish die in cooling pipes, but not enough of them to hurt the overall population, Miller said.

By extension, the water agency figured that intake pipes of water-treatment plants along the St. Johns River would have similar results.

But with the controversy raging over Central Florida’s proposed water withdrawals, the agency is re-examining its belief that the fish won’t be in jeopardy. “We want to be sure,” Miller said.

Migration to Canada

Harming an important spawning area for American shad could provoke anger far beyond Jacksonville.

Central Florida’s portion of the St. Johns River contains a segment called “shad alley.” It’s where huge numbers of American shad hatch, begin a multiyear migration to the Bay of Fundy in Canada and return to spawn. Shad is a prized sport fish.

But Shenker said his work will go further than estimating how many of those ocean roamers will get sucked into water plants.

He and eight student researchers will investigate what might happen to the fish if river flows are reduced and what could happen when salt levels go up because of the lesser freshwater flow.

Still ahead are tens of thousands of white slivers to catch. Through late next year, his students will tow specially designed nets at hundreds of spots in the river from near Cocoa to near Sanford. Captured fish larvae, along with several other species that show up alongside the more plentiful shad, will be identified under microscopes.

Eventually, shad alley should be biologically mapped in detail, and Shenker will tell district officials whether water-treatment plants would cause harm.

“In 30 years of research, this is the most intense study I’ve ever been involved with,” Shenker said.

Neil Armingeon, of the small St. Johns Riverkeeper group in Jacksonville, thinks Shenker is qualified for the work. He worries, however, about how the district will interpret Shenker’s findings.

“Politics has a way of trumping science,” Armingeon said.

From Staff and Wire Reports