Petition drive underway to spur action on Willow Branch Creek

Petition drive underway to spur action on Willow Branch Creek

 

Tired of the lack of progress to complete the clean-up phase from a nearly three-year-old bridge project, residents living near Willow Branch Creek have started a petition, which has garnered responses from concerned citizens outside of Riverside/Avondale.

Judging from the 150 responses on Change.org as of press time, people from Atlantic Beach, Jacksonville Beach, Middleburg, Saint Johns, St. Augustine, and Marathon, Florida, as well as Roswell, Georgia, McKinney, Texas, and Tacoma, Washington have signed the petition.

“Ideally, I’d like have at least 500 signatures,” said Cathleen Murphy, Riverside resident and petition initiator. “Right now, Councilman Love is the only City Council member receiving emails generated from the petition signatures, so I’m sure he’s the only one who’s aware of it. Once we reach 500 signatures, I will email City Council and share the petition.”

The petition asks city officials to remove the silt, contaminated soil and construction debris from the creek to ensure safe water flow for marine life, provide proper drainage after storms to promote driver and pedestrian safety on nearby roadways and protect residential properties and roadways from further flood damage. Those addressed include District 14 Councilman Jim Love; William Joyce, Chief of Engineering and Construction Management; Melissa Long, Chief of Environmental Quality Division; the US Army Corps of Engineers Public Affairs; Greg Strong, Director, Northeast District, Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection, and George W. Robbins, St. Johns River Water Management District, Governing Board, Area 2.

Willow Branch Creek is a tidal creek that widens into a canal and flows to the St. Johns River. From 1907 to 1928, Willow Branch Creek was home to the Florida Yacht Club, and currently has two city parks along its banks, Willow Branch Park and Yacht Basin Park.

The creek is also home to a rich marine life (fish, turtles, crab, shrimp and an occasional alligator) and provides food for the many birds (ducks, hawks, osprey, eagles, egrets and herons) that fish in the creek, according to Murphy. Unfortunately, stated the petition, the creek has been ignored by the city and the lack of attention over the past 100 years is easy to see in its overgrown banks, crumbling bulkhead and dirty stagnant water.

WBCreek_01

Insult to injury

Adding to a century of neglect, in April 2013, the City of Jacksonville began a bridge project on Riverside Avenue to widen the road for a sidewalk over Willow Branch Creek.

During construction, dams were breached by storms multiple times, and hundreds of cubic feet of dirt and construction debris washed into the creek. Two and a half years later, the project is still not complete, pending dredging.

The water in the creek is murky, it no longer flows freely, and it’s unhealthy for humans, marine life and the birds that fish in the creek, according to the petition. Willow Branch Creek consistently has one of the highest levels of fecal coliform bacteria in the city and is considered a definite health risk for humans, the petition noted.

In addition to the environmental hazards posed by the unhealthy water quality, local residents are also very concerned about flooding should a storm hit before the long-awaited cleanup takes place.

Unsatisfactory response

According to Murphy, residents have met with city officials, sent emails, made phone calls and submitted online requests asking the city to take responsibility for the mess created by the bridge project and clean up the creek. She shared an email response from the city’s Public Works Department dated Sept. 8, 2015, which stated: “A section of Willow Branch at the bridge construction site will be dredged under a consent order, which is pending issue by the Environmental Quality Division. Dredging other sections of the creek is not within the city’s scope of responsibility.”

Murphy and others completely disagree with that statement. “It is the City of Jacksonville’s responsibility to clean up the entire mess that was created by the City’s project, not just a portion of it,” she said in the petition.

The consent order was issued against David Touring, owner of Touring Company, Inc., which was contracted by the city to widen the bridge over the creek at Riverside Avenue to add sidewalks.

Murphy hopes a petition will show city officials how serious residents are about the problem. She has the support of the St. Johns Riverkeeper.

“As a resident of Riverside and a representative of Riverkeeper, I share the community’s frustration and concerns regarding the lack of progress by the City on this issue,” said Jimmy Orth, Riverkeeper executive director. “We know who is responsible for the damage and what needs to be done to remediate the creek. There is no reason that it should take this long to resolve.”

It is obvious that the City needs to do a much better job of preventing these type of impacts from occurring in the first place and then remediating the problems as quick as possible, if they should occur, Orth stated.

“If we can’t fix this problem in a timely manner and hold respond the responsible party accountable, what does that say for the prospects of cleaning up all of the other impaired tributaries that feed into the St. Johns River?” he asked.

Avondale resident Alicia Grant is one of those who signed the petition and provided a comment.

“For several years I owned the old Chitty house. This is the house sitting above the bridge at the intersection of Riverside and Willow Branch. We enjoyed many nights sitting on our porch looking out over the creek and the park.

“During the heavy rains in September in the late 1980s, while my boys enjoyed canoeing in the park, many neighbors had to help those less fortunate who lived across the park on lower elevations when their homes flooded along with the entire park between Park Street and Riverside. In one case, we had to move furniture out of a house and across the street to a neighbor’s garage. In another home, we moved furniture upstairs and rescued a cat stranded in the engine of a car trapped in a flooded garage.

“This creek needs immediate attention now to clean out the debris and silting from the bridge reconstruction as well as the debris that has been trapped upstream because of the lower blockages. No excuses, no delays and no passing the buck. It’s a city park and a city creek, just clean it up!”

If interested in the petition, click here. You may also send your thoughts on the issue to [email protected]

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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