Talks renewed on restoration of Fishweir Creek

Talks renewed on restoration of Fishweir Creek
Former Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon looked on as sediment-clouded water poured from a broken water main into Little Fishweir Creek, before making its way along Boone Park toward Fishweir Creek, back in 2007.

It’s been 10 years since The Resident reported that Little Fishweir Creek residents were dismayed to see a thick, milky white discoloration in the creek at its intersection with Park Street. The story appeared on the cover of its inaugural issue.

A three-year-old repair in a water main on Eloise Street had failed in a joint of the polyethylene pipes, according to Ebeneezer Gujjarlapudi, who was director of Jacksonville’s Environmental and Compliance Department and chief of the Environmental Quality Division in 2007. Other leaks were subsequently found.

At that time, another ongoing problem was voiced by resident Mike Webster, concerning Big and Little Fishweir Creeks, which flow through a three-square-mile area that includes Avondale and Murray Hill. Webster was alarmed at the build-up of sediment from construction and development run-off that first created sandbars, then islands flush with foliage and trees. He pointed out the alarming fact that at one time boats could navigate and be docked behind homes on Fishweir Creek, but the depth had become so shallow, passage was no longer possible. Over time these ongoing conditions have continued to alter the flow, depth and appearance of Fishweir Creek.

Assessing Fishweir Creek’s status today, the news is both good and bad.

Matanzas Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon, who was St. Johns Riverkeeper from 2003 to 2012, said during his time as Riverkeeper in Jacksonville, there was a continual, immensely frustrating cycle of reports of creek pollution, sediment and contamination runoff issues, with no resolution despite studies and reports by officials charged with responsibility for the creek’s status and environmental concerns.

St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman, who replaced Armingeon in 2013 and was a river advocate long before, said things have changed little since Armingeon made his last assessment of Fishweir Creek’s problems in 2013.

“The good news is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did complete an in-depth study of Fishweir Creek with specific recommendations and they even secured funding, although with the requirement of matching funds, said Rinaman. “The individual who would be assigned to complete the recommended restoration of Fishweir Creek is Eric Summa, Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) Chief, Planning & Environmental Policy, Jacksonville, who is a resident of the historic district. Summa just recently voiced his commitment to carry out the restoration if the matching funds are raised,” she continued.

“The bad news is the required matching funds from the community, individuals or businesses have never been donated or raised. Worse, the Fishweir Creek Restoration study has a shelf life…it may have to be repeated, starting that process all over again, unless we come up with matching funds soon,” she said.

The Army Corps of Engineers-Jacksonville study for proposed restoration of Fishweir Creek recommended removal of sediments and contaminants with re-establishment of submerged aquatic vegetation and wetland habitat. The plan would not only restore the creek’s depth and appearance, it would improve water quality, wetland function and important fish and manatee habitat, according to Paul E. Stodola, biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville Division in 2013.

Jim Suggs, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Jacksonville, Continuing Authority Program Manager and a 28-year Jacksonville resident, said he has been overseeing the Big Fishweir Creek Restoration project for the past eight years. He also shared that he previously lived in the area, his own children all attended Fishweir Elementary school, and he personally cares about this issue.

“In March 2013, an Army Corps of Engineers report was completed that recommended design and implementation (restoration) of Big Fishweir Creek should move forward,” said Suggs. “In order for that to begin, a Project Partnership Agreement was required. Despite what seemed to be a successful public meeting about the issue at Fishweir Elementary school, well-attended by the community, environmental group representatives, public officials and including positive communication with then-mayor Brown, partnership funding was never approved,” he said.

In 2016 Mayor Curry’s city budget finally included partnership funding for the Fishweir project, which was approved and the City of Jacksonville became a sponsor and partner with the Army Corps of Engineers-Jacksonville. Suggs gives credit to District 14 Councilman Jim Love for his hard work and long-term efforts to secure the partnership and city funding which totaled $900,000 to $1 million.

The Big Fishweir Creek Aquatic & Ecosystem Restoration Section 206 is assigned to Jason Harrah, Fishweir Restoration Project Manager, according to Suggs. But, Suggs explained, because of the time lapse between completion and approval of the 2013 report, by 2016 it had expired and became invalid.

The Corps must now coordinate once again with environmental agencies to re-evaluate restoration recommendations and costs, which may have changed since 2013. That re-evaluation and update of cost will itself sap $100,000 of the approved partnership funding from the city, according to Suggs.

A possible timeline would have that new update completed by March 2017, and approval of the new update should take up to six months, Suggs said. By fall 2017 a new Project Partnership Agreement – based upon that new update – should be approved between the city and the Corps, after it is blessed by the legal teams, he said.

Sometime in 2018 Suggs said he expects all partnership funds and any supplemental monies needed from the federal government will be finalized. Once that is done, restoration design and specifications can be completed, which he said requires up to 12 months, bringing the project into 2019.

After the Fishweir design and specifications are finished, projected for some time in 2019, then the project can be advertised for bids and a contract awarded. The process could take three or four more months, bringing a realistic start date to late 2019 or early 2020 for the restoration project originally approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2007.

“The partnership and funding were the keys to getting this restoration work done,” Suggs said. “Now we have what we need to move forward, and if the contract can be awarded in a timely manner and construction goes well, which is projected to take 24 to 36 months, the restoration could be well underway or completed between 2020 and 2022.”

Riverkeeper Rinaman and former Riverkeeper Armingeon said The Resident has been a tremendous friend to the river over the years.

“This newspaper helped the St. Johns Riverkeeper grow and made the public aware if they weren’t already, about what the condition of Fishweir Creek was and unfortunately continues to be. These were issues the Times-Union was not covering. Of course, whatever is going on in the creek is flowing straight into the St. Johns River, so this environmental issue touches everyone,” Armingeon said. “The publisher, Seth Williams, cared enough to come and take photos and report on water issues every time I called him. The Resident really made a difference in keeping everyone informed and bringing all of us who care about the creek and river together.”

By Julie Kerns Garmendia
Resident Community News

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