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Guardian of the Waterway

Jen Lomberk brings a lawyer's brain and environmentalist’s heart to her work as Matanzas Riverkeeper

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Nestled along the water you’ll find a vibrantly colored rustic building adorned with reclaimed wood and a beautiful view of the Matanzas River. Inside, there’s a solitary, clean room with hardwood floors; a single desk stands by the window and several diplomas are hung on the wall. The Matanzas Riverkeeper definitely has the best office around.

After starting her career as an attorney, Jen Lomberk found herself longing to escape the high-heeled world, wishing for a job that could incorporate her skills, education and love of nature in a more relaxing atmosphere. In late 2017, her dream came true when she became the Matanzas Riverkeeper. She’s traded heels for boots and she couldn’t be happier. “I saw this job as a way that I could use my legal degree to have a positive influence the policies that affect our water,” Lomberk writes in an email.

It’s a beautiful day when I meet the engaging woman who spends her days protecting one of the most unspoiled waterways in Florida, so we decide to sit outside to discuss her new role. A smoldering fire pit creates a cozy climate as we settle into wooden chairs facing the water; behind us sits Genung’s Fish Camp, a relaxed, quintessential Old Florida spot that seems like the perfect place to hang out for a spell or stock up for a day on the water.

Lomberk follows in the footsteps of Neil Armingeon, who hung up his boots last year after four years on the job. As the founder of the organization, Armingeon, also formerly the St. Johns Riverkeeper, is a tough act to follow, but Lomberk is absolutely up to the task. A native Floridian, she holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Central Florida, as well as a Juris Doctor from the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, where she specialized in environmental and land-use law and policy. Her experience includes work on a broad spectrum of environmental and conservation projects, such as municipal beach regulation in Florida, national park management in The Bahamas, conservation easements to protect sea turtles’ nesting habitat, and serving as staff attorney for Alachua Conservation Trust. The river is truly in capable hands.

More than 20 lush miles with beautiful surroundings comprise the Matanzas River. Starting at the St. Augustine Inlet, it runs south 16 miles, where it flows to the Matanzas Inlet and continues on for several miles. The tidal river provides water to several state parks, such as Washington Oaks, Faver-Dykes, River-to-Sea Preserve at Marineland and Pellicer Creek Aqua Preserve. The fish-filled river is full of sprawling salt marshes fed by tidal creeks, and has oyster beds along its edges south of St. Augustine. In addition to common aquatic wildlife like egret, heron and anhinga, once in a while you can spot a sea turtle or a dolphin pod. Fishermen rave over the untapped beauty and abundance within the peaceful waterway, where mostly smaller crafts are run; larger boats can have difficulty navigating certain areas due to marshland and oyster beds.

Approximately one-third of the riverfront is developed; the rest is either open land or publicly owned. Lomberk says these wild spaces are jeopardized by the influx of housing projects in St. Johns County, the third-fastest-growing county in the state (14th in the nation), and she doesn’t see any signs of development subsiding. “There is a paradoxical relationship between our natural areas and development,” she says. “People want to live in pristine natural areas, but the process of developing those areas to build homes inevitably degrades those natural areas.”

Like many environmentalists, she decries urban sprawl and urges smarter development focused on places with existing infrastructure, so that existing natural areas remain intact for habitat, ecosystem services (such as converting carbon dioxide to oxygen, absorbing floodwaters, etc.) and recreation. “Otherwise, we are going to lose all of the things that make this place a wonderful place to live,” she says.

The Matanzas Riverkeeper organization is licensed by the Robert F. Kennedy-founded Waterkeeper Alliance, an international group based in New York that includes more than 300 organizations across the globe. Riverkeepers like Jen Lomberk are environmental stewards tasked with protecting the body of water they oversee. They are often the first to sound the alarm when the dirty deeds of businesses or individuals spill into local waterways; they organize cleanups, promote recreation and generally serve as the voice of their river. As nonprofits, Riverkeepers have more flexibility to advocate than do government organizations, because they don’t have to navigate all that red tape and bureaucracy. This also means they can speak out strongly when a situation calls for tenacity.

As we gaze at the river flowing by, Lomberk discusses the job of keeping the Matanzas River clean, saying that urbanization is the biggest danger to making sure the water stays drinkable, fishable and swimmable. One of the main sources of pollution, stormwater runoff, intensifies with each new development built along the river. Lomberk says that she understands why people want to live alongside the engaging river—but she also thinks the state needs better laws to preserve the waterway for years and generations to come.

It’s a mission that keeps Lomberk busy working the three pillars of the organization: advocacy, education and engagement. You can hear the passion and determination in her voice as she discusses the waterway gently lapping at the shoreline nearby.

Lomberk’s advocacy includes supporting state legislation that promotes and supports the health of the river, and opposing any such that could harm it. As this is an election year, much focus has turned to environmental issues. Lomberk applauds any attention paid to preservation, algae blooms and offshore drilling, but finds it frustrating that many politicians confine their advocacy to just their campaign time when, in reality, such issues have been around for years, and will remain in play after those elected begin their terms and interest in preserving the ecosystem wanes.

Lomberk closely follows the state legislative session, and encourages people to get involved with legislation that would help support the river. She also organizes events to further support the river. Though many legislators are sympathetic to these issues, and have passed laws and rules designed to minimize pollution, these are not retroactive, which limits their effect.

This year, Lomberk and others were successful in their effort to get an initiative on the November ballot that would ban offshore drilling and fracking. Advocates and a broad, grassroots coalition of concerned citizens who do not want their waterways contaminated by an oil spill campaigned hard for the amendment, ultimately convincing the Constitutional Revision Commission to put it on the ballot. In order to pass, it will need 60 percent of the vote. Even though the amendment is coupled with the unrelated effort to prohibit vaping in the workplace, Lomberk is determined to score a win. The odds may be in her favor, as the banning of offshore drilling has acquired broad support among voters. “Offshore drilling has been a bipartisan [issue], because if there is a leak, it would be detrimental,” she says.

Lomberk is also closely following a proposal to turn over responsibility for regulating discharge of dredged or fill materials into U.S. waters. The governing legislation, §404 of the Clean Water Act, is currently administered by the Environmental Protection Agency and implemented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Florida Department of Environmental Protection is in the process of trying to take over the program. “The problem is that if FDEP assumes authority over this program, they will not get any additional resources to implement it and they are already stretched pretty thin,” Lomberk says. “This is worrisome because this program protects sensitive waterbodies like the wetlands in our area that retain flood water during storm events, filter and clean polluted water, and provide critical habitat for fish and other wildlife.” Further complicating the issue is the fact that §404 is currently under revision, which means that FDEP may not even know precisely what it is assuming authority over if its efforts are successful.

Equally as important as legislation is Lomberk’s work to preserve lands around the river and its watershed. St. Johns County used to have a viable program for this effort, but she says the county now lacks sufficient funds. The nonprofit North Florida Land Trust is also on the front lines of preserving lands crucial to maintaining the health of the river. Other states, such as New Jersey, offer incentives for landowners to designate their land as preserved, but Florida does not have a similar program in place. Last month, the courts may have delivered a gift to conservationists like Lomberk; on June 15, a judge ruled in favor of a coalition of environmentalists, including the St. Johns Riverkeeper, who had sued the state for failing to comply with 2014’s Water & Land Conservation Amendment requiring it to use a third of real estate documentary stamp taxes for land acquisition, restoration and management.

Public support and awareness of environmental issues is key to protecting the ecosystem. Even the simple act of speaking to groups of citizens about septic systems today can help protect the river of tomorrow. Jen Lomberk engages the public by collaborating with residents, local organizations and government agencies, and says she enjoys working with folks on grassroots initiatives. She keeps them informed of upcoming events and works with them to clean up the water as well as help spread awareness about the importance of preserving the river.

“I love the concept of a waterkeeper—someone whose job it is to act as a voice for the water and work to protect it,” Lomberk says. “But as romantic as that notion is, actually affecting change to protect our waterbodies is an extremely difficult task.”

In addition to raising awareness about why the river should be preserved, Riverkeepers like Lomberk teach people about the effects of different pollutants. Many residents use herbicides or pesticides in their yards—and much of that winds up in waterways, causing or intensifying algae blooms, fish kills and other environmental degradation. There are also the serious issues of agricultural and industrial runoff, and septic systems that leach into the river, which can cause elevated levels of fecal coliform. As we chatted by the river, she said that they were currently seeking people who have docks on their property to farm oysters, which would assist in the Riverkeeper’s joint effort with the University of Florida to collect data on the Matanzas oysters. Information is another weapon in a Riverkeeper’s arsenal.

The vital work of a Riverkeeper is ever-changing; Lomberk says that one day she might be teaching kids, the next photographing eagles, the next lobbying a legislator, all to benefit the Matanzas River.

“There isn’t really such a thing as a typical workday for me,” she explains, without a hint of regret. It’s good to know Jen Lomberk has found her dream job by the water.

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More at matanzasriverkeeper.org.

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