Matanzas Riverkeeper protects unique, historic waterway

Neil Armingeon, the Matanzas Riverkeeper
By Matt Keene |

In the time of seafarers, when billowing sails glided across mythical seas, it was St. Augustine’s front door and its back.

In the 1500s, it became the path connecting the old world to the new in a maritime system where rivers were the conveyors of modernity. The French, upon sighting it, called it the River of Dolphins. Less than four years later, however, it would become the Matanzas River, or river of massacre, as Spanish territorial conquistadors slaughtered French settlers on the shores of its southern inlet.

Today, much as it did then, the Matanzas River nurtures extensive salt marsh estuaries and provides refuge for the spoonbill, heron, egret, osprey, sea turtle, manatee, dolphin, ray and more.

Oyster bars fracture its floor and mangroves root along its edges. Its waters radiate a clear, deep blue at the swelling of high tide.

For hundreds of years, the river has protected the inhabitants of St. Augustine and all those living along its shores. Now, it has its own protector, as threats both small and large press in upon its ancient waters.

“If we say we can take care of this, we can take care of this,” Neil Armingeon, the new Matanzas Riverkeeper, said.

The Matanzas Riverkeeper began in late 2013, springing out of decades of community support and dedication the protection of the river. The non-profit is a member of the globally-effective Waterkeeper Alliance, made up of more than 200 organizations around the world that protect more than 100,000 miles of rivers, streams and coastlines.

Protection of the Matanzas involves both education and action.

“One of the things we’ve all got to do is live a more sustainable life,” Armingeon said.

Of the issues facing the Matanzas, urbanization of St. Augustine and Anastasia Island could be the most significant. Excessive fertilizer and pesticide use, stormwater runoff and Florida’s voracious appetite for water accelerate the problem.

As water resources become overdrawn, the floodplains recharging the state’s vast underground water source – the Floridan aquifer – become less efficient, the state’s magnificent and economically-fertile springs lose their awe-inspiring majesty and rivers like the Matanzas suffer.

Armingeon believes that successful environmental change involves youth.

“We’ve got to involve young people in the leadership, in the decision-making,” he said. “Frankly, one of the biggest issues facing the environmental movement is the lack of young people.”

The protection of the Matanzas is a robust addition to the global Waterkeeper network. The river boasts archaeological, historical, cultural and ecological significance. It stretches approximately 23 miles along Florida’s northeastern coastline and its basin occupies approximately 120,000 acres. Of that, approximately 18,000 acres are owned by federal, state and local governments.

“One third of the river is in public ownership,” Armingeon said. “It’s a testament to twenty years of people trying to protect it.”

The Matanzas lies in what’s known as an ecotone – a transition area where two natural communities meet. The river supports elements of both the temperate and subtropical regions, allowing a greater diversity of plants and animals to inhabit the geographically unique area.

The Matanzas Riverkeeper’s website states that it is the “only spot in Florida where you can stand on the edge of a nearly natural ocean inlet, watch the sun set over an 18th century Spanish fort, and observe the iconic Florida roseate spoonbill and Florida manatee.”

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