A month after Hurricane Irma unloaded torrents of water across Florida, the effects of rain and tides that triggered record-setting floods have remained hard to define.

 

Water-quality measurements compiled since the storm left Florida Sept.11 are still being assembled into deep stacks of statistics that could eventually show what the storm did to the rivers and creeks it rinsed with runoff from farm fields, septic tanks and hazardous waste sites around the state.

But results from those tests may end up missing the effects of spills and leaks that compound one another, said St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman.

“Not only is there a gap in time, there’s also a gap in information,” said Rinaman, who said she’s scheduled to talk next week with environmental officials about lessons from the storm’s aftermath.

While a series of agencies have sampled water testing stations separately, she said one agency should track the combined effects. “That’s incredibly important when you’re downstream,” Rinaman sad.

Jacksonville is the last community on the 310-mile St. Johns before the river empties into the ocean.

An online database of test results that Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection compiles from across the state had no results since Sept. 11 from rivers or creeks in Duval, Baker, Clay, Nassau or St. Johns counties, where thousands of homes and businesses flooded.

The St. Johns River Water Management District tested 43 sites in the river’s lower basin, roughly from the ocean to Lake George in Putnam County. But perhaps half of those readings weren’t available Wednesday through a data portal on the agency’s website because the results were very recent and still being finalized.

The tests measure things like salinity and pH, which varied some and can be important to river life. But they weren’t designed to track levels of bacteria, pesticides, fuel residue and other pollutants that could turn up in floodwaters, said Teresa Monson, an agency spokeswoman.

By late last week, Jacksonville’s city inspectors had analyses of about a dozen sampling sites collected in late September for purely routine testing. The results included readings like levels of algae-feeding nitrogen in the water, but didn’t address other questions, like levels of bacteria that could pose health hazards.

There’s been more water around in the past month than anyone could test.

The water management district estimated this week that Irma dropped 2.2 trillion gallons of water – picture a foot of water on top of 6.7 million football fields – onto the 18-a county area that drains into the St. Johns. Duval County had 13.1 inches of rain, and Clay County had 13.5 inches from the hurricane.

Tests showed oxygen levels dropped sharply in the river’s upper basin, which includes the area between Titusville and Vero Beach, although that didn’t happen around Jacksonville.

The upper basin’s changing river level may have scooped up water from marshes that are oxygen-starved because they’re full of decomposing material that sucks up oxygen, management district scientist John Hendrickson said.

Nor’easters and ordinary rains have kept big parts of Florida from fully drying out since Irma.

Last week, flooding closed St. Johns County’s branch library in the farming town of Hastings for a day.

That week in Central Florida, news coverage described people in the Ridge Harbor community on the Withlacoochee River west of Orlando paddling boats through streets that had remained flooded since Irma hit three weeks earlier.

Steve Patterson: (904) 359-4263