“An alien creature invades a pristine environment!” the announcer’s voice booms out — accompanied by sinister organ music — over a black-and-white shot of an oozing substance. “Part animal! Part plant!” the voice continues, and the documentary turns color as the phosphorescent green of the St. Johns River slimes into view.
If “The Green Monster: It Came From the River” sounds like a B horror movie, then producer Bill Retherford of PRC Digital Media said, he has done his job. “We dirtied up the takes to make it look like old film. We wanted it to be educational but also funny, so we used old-time fonts and a big announcer’s voice,” he said.
Although the documentary’s pseudo-horror-movie tone is meant to be funny, the scenario it depicts is deadly serious.
At 310 miles, the St. Johns is the longest river in Florida and one of the few major rivers in the U.S. that flows north. The river is about 2 miles wide where it hits Jacksonville before flowing out into the Atlantic.
For more than a decade, parts of the river have sported a greenish tinge in summer, as plant life vied for control of the water. In 2005, however, the St. Johns spewed up algae that turned the river a deadly phosphorescent green.
There was a toxin in this particular strain of algae, Mr. Retherford said, that could turn out to be dozens of times stronger than safe limits established by the World Health Organization.
“It was nitrogen and phosphorus,” he said. “It makes people ill. And someone needed to step up to it and say we’ve got a problem.” But no one could decide who that someone should be.
“Jacksonville Electric Authority is the local agency responsible for treating our sewage,” Mr. Retherford said, “and it does a pretty good job. But this is controversial among the different local agencies. A lot of legislation has been passed, but the only thing people could agree on was that the river is not healthy.”
“The Green Monster” aired in March 2006 in prime time on WTLV-TV in Jacksonville, just as local officials were readying their own report about the algae problem.
Four months later, when Jacksonville Mayer John Peyton released his 10-year, $700 million restoration project, the River Accord, he adopted some of the documentary’s recommendations. The mayor also credited “The Green Monster” for “galvanizing public interest.”
Mr. Retherford knows how to get people galvanized. He and his crew brought in local experts to show viewers what they could do to help. “A lot of this [algae] is from fertilizer and pesticides from people’s yards,” he said. “There are 400,000 homes in Duval County, and that runoff goes into storm drains. We said to people, ‘The river has a lot of problems, and some of them come from your own home.’
“And then we said, ‘Here’s something you can do.’ We talked about using less fertilizer. We brought one woman in and she had a little pet-food can marked at quarter-inch increments. She put it in the yard and turned on the sprinklers, and in no time at all it hit three-quarters of an inch, and she showed us the can and said, ‘This is all the water your lawn needs, twice a week.'”
For those who were unmoved by the fallen beauty of the river, Mr. Retherford and his staff had a backup plan.
“We showed there was a connection between the environment and the economy,” Mr. Retherford said. “If you have a river coated in green every summer, you won’t go out in a boat. You don’t want to eat the fish. We interviewed a lady whose family for two generations has been fishing for crabs, but [when the algae got bad] people wouldn’t touch them. Her income dropped 75 percent over the summer. That kind of thing has a ripple effect on the whole economy.
“Unfortunately, people are not often moved by the pristine beauty of a waterway,” he said, “but people sure tend to be motivated by money.”
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