A complex and vastly expensive schedule of projects to help the St. Johns River’s health in Northeast Florida is expected to be endorsed today by state and local agencies, utilities and representatives of business and citizen interests.

Taxpayers and utility customers will spend more than $600 million for projects that could take 15 years to complete, including more than $160 million in work that is already finished. But that figure understates the final cost of the effort, because prices for many projects simply aren’t known yet.

Not committing to such a schedule isn’t an option.

Help for the river is required by rules of the decades-old federal Clean Water Act. Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection is managing the plan, the first of its type in this part of the state.

“Monday is a key milestone,” said Greg Strong, the department’s Northeast Florida director. “Really what’s happening is, I think … stake-holders have put aside their personal interest for the greater good.”

The plan’s projects, from regulating fertilizer use to retiring failed septic tanks and upgrading sewage plants, would be carried out in communities along roughly 100 miles of the northern end of the river, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Mayport.

The work list is designed to cut roughly one-fifth of the nitrogen flowing into the river, although the amount varies by location. South of Black Creek in Clay County, the plan would also remove about one-sixth of the phosphorus. An oversupply of those chemicals has fed an eruption of algae, which harms grass beds and areas where fish live.

The state’s plan is essentially a quota system on pollution. It estimates how many tons of nitrogen and phosphorous the river can absorb and remain healthy, then allots those amounts among communities and some large companies.

The work plan depends on accurately projecting how much cleaner each project will make the river.

“The whole thing is about the science,” said Neal Shinkre, a St. Johns County utility manager who sat on a committee overseeing the plan. “The science has been questioned all the time, by all of us.”

Shinkre said he felt comfortable with the projections partly because the work plan has been examined and critiqued by a wide mix of groups that will have to carry the costs, including his own agency.

“I think our job is to make sure we’re fair, not only to ourselves, but to the public,” he said.

Parts of the pollution cutback are still being planned. Clay, St. Johns and Putnam counties, for example, are all expected to work with the St. Johns River Water Management District on algae-reduction projects that haven’t been sketched out yet.

Utilities and others that do more to clean up than they’re required can also sell credit for that extra work to another polluter. Jacksonville officials have been interested in buying credits from JEA, for example, hoping they could save millions of dollars on a series of expensive storm water projects.

By Steve Patterson, The Times-Union

From Staff and Wire Reports

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