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Water bodies, watersheds and storm water

What you can do to reduce water pollution

Waterways can easily be polluted through the way we all approach some common behaviors — applying fertilizers and pesticides, clearing grass clippings from yards, driveways and sidewalks; driving vehicles; flushing toilets; washing laundry and chemical disposal.

The greatest threat to Florida’s waterways is indifference — the belief that someone else will fix the problems. It will take everyone’s participation to improve the health of our rivers, lakes and streams. Each of us can modify behavior to reduce or eliminate our impacts on waterways.

Fertilize wisely

Full fertilizer speader sitting ready for use on the lawn in the background

Nitrogen pollution comes from many sources, including from the fertilizers used on lawns and in landscaping. This nitrate-rich water makes its way to surface waters as runoff during rainfall or over-irrigation, or it may drain slowly from the soil over time, where excess nutrients cause algal blooms and undesirable weed growth.

When fertilizing, using the correct amount of fertilizer can reduce the amount of pollutants reaching waterways, save water and money, and result in a healthier landscape. Overfertilizing can aggravate pest problems, stimulate excessive plant growth, and demand frequent irrigation.

Fertilizers should be used only when specific nutrient deficiency symptoms are evident.

Florida-friendly lawns require only moderate amounts of supplemental fertilizer once they are established. Fertilizer use tips include the following:

  • Apply fertilizers sparingly, if at all, and avoid overuse near the water’s edge.
  • Know application factors, such as grass species and soil type and permeability. Know exactly how much area (square feet) of your lawn the bag of fertilizer is intended to cover.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s directions on the bag, particularly in terms of the amount per application.
  • Choose fertilizers with low or no phosphates. Florida soil is naturally high in phosphorus, so a “no phosphate” fertilizer is fine for most mature lawns. Apply a phosphate fertilizer only if lacking. For specifics to your area, contact the local County Cooperative Extension Service.
  • Choose slow-release fertilizers. The best fertilizers for healthy landscapes and the environment are those that contain a high percentage of slow-release forms of nitrogen. Slow-release products stay in the soil to supply nutrients to plants on a gradual basis, over a longer period of time. The product label will say organic, slow-release or controlled release nitrogen, sulfur-coated, IBDU (15N-isobutylidene divrea), or resin-coated.
  • Fertilize only during the growing season. Allow a month between autumn application and the first freezing temperatures, which will make new growth less vulnerable to frost.

Use chemicals responsibly

Like fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals can end up in our natural waterways through stormwater runoff. Use chemicals responsibly with these tips:

  • Use pesticides, herbicides and fungicides only when needed.
  • Follow the directions on the product’s label.
  • Apply only on areas needing treatment.
  • Consider organic or nontoxic products.
Concrete discharge pipe flowing with stormwater into a receiving body of water

Minimize harm from stormwater runoff

You may not have waterfront property, but the rain that runs off your roof, lawn and driveway can eventually end up in the nearest water body by flowing over land and into storm drains. A common misconception is that storm drains lead to a treatment plant when, in reality, most are direct conduits to a stormwater pond or natural waterway.

Storm water is a veritable “chemical soup” of waste and pollutants such as motor oil, gasoline, trash, dirt and fertilizers. About 90 percent of the water quality impact from stormwater runoff comes from the first inch of rainfall. Stormwater ponds provide temporary storage of stormwater runoff and capture a variety of pollutants that would otherwise work their ways downhill to waterways and wetlands.

Tips to lessen harmful impacts from stormwater runoff include the following:

  • Maintain your stormwater system. Some maintenance efforts should include clearing or cleaning inflow/outflow structures, removing nuisance and excess vegetation, repairing eroded slopes, and cleaning up trash and yard waste in your yard and gutters and around storm drains.
  • Plant appropriate shoreline vegetation to reduce erosion, absorb nutrients and lower the pond’s water table.
  • Avoid the unwise or excessive use of pesticides and herbicides, which can harm people, pets, beneficial organisms and the environment. Use nontoxic alternatives whenever possible, and pull weeds by hand. Also, avoid overuse of fertilizers, which can wash into ponds and water bodies and cause harmful algal blooms.
  • Don’t blow yard waste and grass clippings into streets or storm drains.
  • Repair automobile leaks.
  • Don’t dump oils, chemicals or paint in your yard or down storm drains.
  • Dispose of antifreeze, motor oil and batteries at designated collection centers.
  • Pick up and properly dispose of pet waste.

Maintain septic systems

A properly located, designed, constructed and maintained septic tank system can serve a home as efficiently as a central sewer system, but a system that does not receive proper care and attention can be a financial burden and a potential health threat, according to the Florida Department of Health’s Division of Environmental Health and Bureau of Onsite Sewage Programs.

After the septic tank system is placed in service, proper operation and maintenance of the system will ensure continued efficient service and prevent sudden replacement expenses.

To ensure your system is functioning properly, follow guidelines from the Florida Department of Health, including:

  • Know the location and capacity of your septic tank system.
  • Have a licensed contractor inspect the tank every three to five years.
  • Have the tank pumped when the combined depth of the sludge and scum equals one-third of the tank liquid volume.
  • Install the system so that rainfall and surface water will flow away from the drainfield and at an appropriate distance from nearby waterways.
  • Grow grass above the system.
  • Install water conservation fixtures or devices to reduce the total volume of water entering the system, and repair leaking fixtures.
  • Keep plumbing fixtures such as toilets and faucets in good repair to prevent leakage and wasting of water.
  • Never flush paper towels, newspapers, wrapping paper, rags or sticks into the system.
  • Do not overuse ordinary household cleaning chemicals that will be flushed into the system.
  • Do not pour out or empty hobby or home industry chemicals into the system.
  • Avoid allowing grease or other bulky waste to enter the system.
  • Do not flush toxic materials such as pesticides into the system.
  • Keep trees and shrubbery away from the drainfield.
  • Do not drive vehicles across or park on the drainfield to protect it from being crushed.
  • Do not use chemical solvents to clean plumbing lines or a septic tank system.

Sediments from construction sites

In 1982 the Florida Legislature recognized the pollution potential of stormwater runoff and passed legislation requiring treatment of storm water. Since then, all new developments have been required to use best management practices (BMPs) to minimize erosion during construction and to treat storm water after construction. These BMPs may include requiring stormwater treatment facilities, such as retention or detention ponds, detention ponds with filtration, or swales.

Sediments from the soil can wash into waterways, which can create problems for aquatic life. Turbidity — cloudy water caused by suspended matter — reduces the amount of sunlight able to reach submersed plants. Siltation — the settling out of the sand, silt and other matter suspended in the water onto the bottom of the water body — destroys submersed grass beds and other bottom-dwelling plants and animals, in addition to impacting drainage and navigation.

To reduce sediment when landscaping, remodeling, building new structures or doing any earth moving, you can do the following:

  • Cover small mounds of dirt with a tarp so wind and rain don’t carry the sediment into the nearby waterway. Surrounding larger piles of dirt with staked hay bales or filter cloth fences will minimize erosion.
  • Do not alter the size of your neighborhood stormwater swale or pond. The stormwater system is designed and constructed to an appropriate size. Any reduction in treatment volume will interfere with the pond’s ability to hold stormwater runoff. Filling stormwater ponds, swales and retention systems can cause flooding and endanger waterways.
  • Consult the stipulations of your neighborhood’s permit before any construction. Changing the elevation of large pieces of property can have drastic impacts on where storm water flows.


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St. Johns River Water Management District
4049 Reid Street, Palatka, FL 32177
(800) 725-5922