The Riverkeeper: Saving St. Augustine’s Matanzas waterways

North Florida's estuarine Matanzas River at dusk. Photo: Walter Coker

By Jared Olson

For conservationist Jen Lomberk, the Matanzas River is both a blessing and a curse.

“We have something very beautiful that a lot of people are passionate about protecting,” she says, contemplating the estuary she’s spent the last year fighting to protect. “But I’ve also noticed it’s very hard to get people to care and pay attention when things aren’t catastrophic.”

As the “Matanzas Riverkeeper,” Lomberk, 28, is a legal expert-turned-conservationist who’s ingratiated herself into a web of local volunteers agitating to protect the waterways around St. Augustine, the majority of which lay within the beautiful but threatened Matanzas River watershed. 

Running a one-person 501c3, or non-profit, she’s helped fight in her short tenure to protect the wetlands surrounding the nation’s oldest city. But the beauty of St. Augustine’s wetlands is offset only by the danger of being in the nation’s 14th fastest growing county.  

Sitting on the dock of Genungs Fish Camp, just a stone’s throw her office, she looks out over the windswept waters of the Matanzas and explains the nature of her work. 

Though it may seem redolent of Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” the tradition of the Riverkeeper, she explains, has roots that can be traced back five decades, to New York’s Hudson River watershed. 

It was an era of uncontrolled industrial pollution. Toxic waste dumping had all but despoiled the Hudson River, destroying the livelihoods of the fishermen whose businesses depended on drawing from healthy populations of fish and crabs.

Jen Lomberk, a legal expert-turned-conservationist and current Matanzas Riverkeeper. Photo: Walter Coker

“This was the 1960s, before the Clean Water Act,” she says of that era. “The Cuyahoga River was on fire. A lot of these rivers were essentially used as open air sewage systems.”

The fishermen filed a lawsuit against the polluters. Against all odds, they won. But afterwards, there was one fisherman who didn’t return to his previous life. This man, John Cronin, would instead dedicate himself to patrolling the waters of the Hudson to ensure no polluters would harm the ecosystem in the future. 

“The very first day he was out patrolling,” she says, “there was an oil tanker out in the river that was dumping oil straight into the water, so he had his work kind of cut out for him.”

Like that, the world’s first ever Riverkeeper was born. 

It was a unique model of conservation: having a designated watchdog, often with a combination of legal and ecological experience, look out over a specific watershed to ensure its continued soundness and health. 

Other self-anointed Riverkeepers began emerging in the coming decades, modeling themselves after the example of Cronin. Soon, they morphed into a loose global network of conservationists, each one working individually in their watersheds but referring to the network for advice and support. 

Lomberk, for one, first heard about the Riverkeepers when she was still a student at the University of Florida. 

She was studying law then. But it was becoming increasingly apparent to her that becoming a lawyer chained to the indoor world was a gloomy prospect in which she had no desire to partake.

“About halfway through law school,” she says, “I realized I did not want to litigate. I hate wearing suits, I can’t walk in heels. Spending 60-plus hours in a cubicle in a courtroom seemed absolutely miserable to me.”

There would be a conference in Gainesville known as the “Public Interest Environmental Conference,” where all the Riverkeepers in Florida happened to gather. Though she found concept for such a job interesting, she thought little of it at the time.  

Later, when she was working with UF Conservation Clinic and Land Trust out of Law School, a door opened that would allow her to become a Riverkeeper herself. 

“When Neil Armingeon (the former, and first, Matanzas Riverkeeper) announced his retirement, I jumped on the opportunity to get a job application. It seemed like a good fit. I could use my legal background in a way that did something that was important to me and that was impactful.”

Photo: Walter Coker

Armingeon had been the first Matanzas Riverkeeper, and when Lomberk got the job she shadowed the outgoing conservationist to understand what it would take to watch over St. Augustine’s waterways. 

Her office, a wooden bungalow, sits beneath a grove of low-hanging trees at the edge of Genungs Fish Camp, a few feet from the shimmering, wide-open expanses of the Matanzas’ salt marshes. Out the broad windows of the shack where she works, you can see the pale blue of the river where it’s textured by the breeze and the passing of sailboats and skiffs. 

So far, the Matanzas has escaped the toxic algae blooms which, as a result of industrial agriculture and urban development, turned South Florida rivers last year sulfurous neon-green

The clarity of the Matanzas is what makes it so special: the waterway, unlike many in South Florida, remains largely untouched by human encroachment and all the attendant toxicities that come with it. Its marshes, vast swathes of which lay uninterrupted, filter toxins naturally and act as automatic flood control. It’s even one of the last places on the east coast of Florida where you can eat local oysters without getting sick. 

The salt marshes of the Matanzas River, one of the cleanest rivers in Florida. Photo: Walter Coker

“We’re in a very unique situation here because we have something that’s in such good shape, especially when compared to the rest of the state,” she says.

Last summer, the most visible assault on the Matanzas River marshlands—and the highest profile issue she’s faced in her role as Riverkeeper—came with the Antigua housing development, on the western shore of Anastasia Island, and with the proposed development on the Fish Island property to the south. 

Construction for the Antigua development began abruptly in the summer of July 2018, on a property north of S.R. 312 that abuts the Matanzas River. 

The speed with which Antigua emerged—bulldozers were clearing land and orange tape was strung up before people even realized what was happening—only compounded the public furor over the proposed, 170-home Fish Island development to the south. 

It’s suspected that the first meeting to debate the Fish Island was strategically scheduled for the day before the 4thof July because most people would be preoccupied with the coming festivities. 

“A lot of people I’ve talked to thought that Fish Island and the surrounding area was conservation land,” she says. “So when they saw Antigua, it was very jarring for them. The prospect that another development might happen on the other side of 312 has really got a lot of people up in arms.” 

In a frenetic few months following the emergence of Antigua, Lomberk and fellow activists worked feverishly to protect the Fish Island property—a tract of land noted for its historical significance as much as its immaculate ecology. 

They sent out newsletters. They organized community meetings. Lomberk sifted through pages upon pages of dry legal documents to distill their arcane masses of information into easily digestible public newsletters. 

Their work yielded unexpected results: on the Aug. 7 zoning meeting, whose agenda included the discussion of Fish Island, saw dozens of local residents flood city hall to demand the proposed development be halted. 

“There were so many people that the fire marshal had to start putting people into an overflow room because they wouldn’t all fit,” she says. “Someone from the staff even said they’d never seen that many people at a planning and zoning meeting before.”

According to the meeting minutes, 39 local residents spoke in opposition to the re-zoning of the Fish Island property, which would’ve permitted the building of the proposed development south of Antigua. 

The citizens cited a variety of reasons for their opposition to the development, including the “possible economic impact to local contractors and business owners who rely on nearby waterways,” “negative impacts to wildlife,” “negative impact (on) the surrounding wetlands” and the “impacts of (the) proposed fill on area flooding.”

Under immense pressure from enraged residents, the Planning and Zoning Board voted unanimously to reject the re-zoning of the Fish Island, halting the proposed second development. When DR Horton—the $12 billion real estate corporation pushing for the construction project—failed to appeal for reconsideration within the month, it meant the Fish Island property would remain safe from human encroachment until at least August 2019, when they could propose building again.  

But that says little for the long-term safety of Fish Island—or many of the other wildlands abutting the Matanzas River—in a future where St. Johns County’s population is predicted to rise by almost 80,000, up to 320,000 in 2030. Thousands of houses will likely be needed with such an influx, meaning that thousands of acres of wildlands will be wiped off the map to accommodate for their growth. 

Lomberk notes how, given the more conservative demographic in St. Johns County, she’s often had to use a more utilitarian and economic language to demonstrate the imperative of preserving the Matanzas. 

“St. Johns County is very dependent on its tourism industry,” she says. “And our tourism is dependent on healthy beaches, healthy waterways, people being able to fish and kayak and boat … you have to couch it in terms that people are willing to hear.”

It would be misleading, according to Lomberk, to think that preserving the Matanzas can only be accomplished by protesting the appearance of each new development. The reality is that a miasma of obscure legalities quietly lays the groundwork for new developments long before construction equipment is even rolled out.

“What a lot of people don’t realize,” she says, “is that these decisions—things regarding land use—are made decades in advance.”

She talks about how, despite the deep necessity of resisting developments such as the one proposed on Fish Island, one of the most crucial factors in preserving wildlands is paying attention to lands codes, which open the door for construction companies to begin building in the first place.  

“There are a lot of other issues that just aren’t as sexy—so people don’t pay attention to them—but that have a much bigger impact,” she says. “A lot of people don’t realize that the county right now is in the midst of re-writing its land development code. Obviously the county has a lot more acreage than St. Augustine itself. So amendments to the land development code will have a far greater impact.”

The city of St. Augustine takes up 12.74 square miles, or 8,153 acres of land. But the greater area of St. Johns County constitutes an astronomically larger 822 square miles, or 520,080 acres of land. So though it may pass under the many people’s radar, vastly larger amounts of wildlands will be imperiled if the county’s development codes are rewritten. 

Preoccupied as she is with defending more immediately threatened tracts of land, like Fish Island, Lomberk has her eyes on long-term goals as well for her role as the Riverkeeper. She wants to create a funding source that would allow her to hire on a larger staff. And she’s looking for ways to create a financial mechanism could help acquire land for conservation purposes—an antidote to one of the most frequent criticisms she gets in her line of work.

“Whenever we’re working on protecting these lands,” she says, “the naysayer’s response is always ‘Well if you love it so much, why don’t you buy it?’”

Creating such an acquisition mechanism, she says, would render that criticism irrelevant. 

Protecting the wild waterways around the Matanzas is, more than anything, a personal fight for Lomberk. 

Growing up in Ocoee in Central Florida in the ’90s and 2000s, she watched much of the wildness that captured her childhood imagination became slowly consumed by human growth. Suburban developments and strip malls sprung up where there once were orange groves and swamps and stands of pine. 

Even the lake she grew up on saw a drastic reduction in wildlife over her time as an adolescent.

“Every morning,” she says, suddenly nostalgic, “I would wake up to the sound of birds and ducks, and we’d go out to the dock to watch gators and otters. My parents still have that house; they still live on that lake. But if you go back now—yes, there are still birds, there’s still herons and ibises. But I haven’t seen a gator there in 15 years. I haven’t seen an otter there in 15 years. Watching that change in my short lifetime, seeing what used to be a thriving ecosystem that’s now become just an inert body of water, it’s really devastating. Knowing that it didn’t have to be that way.”

Her gaze drifts back out over the water again. With hope, she believes she can help save all this from ruin.

“If I can do that for this watershed, I would be really happy.”

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