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River Trouble

Back in July, 45-year-old Candace Scott decided to join friends for an afternoon Jet Ski across the St. Johns River. Four days later, she was dead -- her life ended by flesh-eating bacteria that entered her body through a small cut on her left leg.

Scott's death put a mortal exclamation point on what had already been a bad summer for the sprawling river that empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Mayport. The most obvious sign of the river's distress was a miles-long algae plume that covered portions of the St. Johns in a smelly blue-green slime, which killed fish and drove off swimmers and boaters.

TOXIC COATING: The algae bloom on the St. Johns could become an annual threat.Though scientists point out that the algae and flesh-eating bacteria are different species, many say they are manifestations of the same problem: Explosive growth that's pouring nutrients (such as lawn fertilizers) into the slow-moving river. Growth is also destroying thousands of acres of wetlands that once filtered some of the pollutants before they reached the river.

In the case of the algae bloom, the nutrients combined with record heat and abundant summer rainfall to create an ideal environment for bacteria growth. By mid-August, the algae (considered toxic to fish and humans) had reached harmful levels along a stretch of river running from Putnam County north to downtown Jacksonville. Near Jacksonville Naval Air Station, the river contained more than 1,400 parts per billion of algae. (The World Health Organization recommends caution if toxins exceed 10 parts per billion.)

"The algae is the river's way of telling us that it's sick," says Neil Armingeon of the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the river "watchdog" employed by a non-profit organization of the same name.

While the bloom is expected to dissipate as the weather cools, Armingeon and others warn the algae could become an annual threat unless something is done to stem riverfront development and control nutrient runoff into the St. Johns and the numerous creeks that feed it.

River advocates thought they were making progress when the Army Corps of Engineers refused to allow the developer of the proposed Freedom Commerce retail center on Jacksonville's Southside to destroy 120 acres of wetlands that form the headwaters of two creeks that feed the St. Johns. The developer, Goodman Cos. of West Palm Beach, is appealing the decision.

The victory, however, was short-lived. In September, the governing board of the St. Johns River Water Management District gave Goodman a state permit to destroy the wetlands (which the company will have to replicate elsewhere).

Armingeon says the Riverkeeper and other organizations will likely appeal that ruling, setting up showdowns in state and federal courts.