Riverkeeper serious about fighting dredging project

After five years of negotiations with the Jacksonville Port Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers, the St. Johns Riverkeeper is ready to take off the gloves and file a lawsuit within 30 days regarding the proposed St. Johns River dredging project, said Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman.

Rinaman discussed the dredging issue and two other legislative issues, which will seriously impact the health of Jacksonville’s main waterway, during a talk sponsored by the San Marco Preservation Society March 14 at Preservation Hall.

In April 2014, the Corps issued its final environmental impact statement for the Jacksonville Port Authority’s (JAXPORT) proposal to dredge 13 miles of the St. Johns River from Mayport to the Dames Point Bridge. The plan is to widen and deepen the waterway from 40 feet to 47 feet so that the larger cargo ships transiting the Suez Canal and the expanded Panama Canal can deliver shipments to JAXPORT terminals. In its statement, the Corps found the plan, which would enable Jacksonville to be the first U.S. East Coast port of call for the vessels, “economically justified” and environmentally acceptable,” according to Dredging Today.Com.

However, in her talk in San Marco, Rinaman said a recent new study by a retired CSX professional “peeled back the onion,” calling into question the Corps’ findings and suggesting the benefits of the dredging may be “over-exaggerated.”

“The Army Corps only looked at the redemption costs to shippers. That is the only economic measure they looked at. They haven’t studied the regional impact and only looked at the job projections with JAXPORT. The new study found JAXPORT’s numbers don’t add up,” she said. “Before we do a billion-dollar project with public money that will damage our river, let’s have some public conversation about it.”

“The wetlands are the kidneys of our river,” Rinaman continued, noting that widening and deepening the river will allow salt water to intrude further inland, burning submerged grasses and trees, and harming fish and wildlife. “If we allow this we will lose the bio filters of the river and its tributaries. It hurts the river from a recreational and commercial point of view,” she said.

Rinaman also said that early in the dredging negotiations, the Corps had offered an $80 million mitigation package. “One of the most controversial and exciting things in it was the restoration of the Ocklawaha River,” she said, referring to the largest tributary of the St. Johns, which was dammed in 1968. Bowing to political pressure, the Corps later reduced its mitigation offer to less than $3 million, adding that it would also buy conservation land, she said.

“Conservation land in itself does not offset damage to the river. It does not provide resources – biofilter or capacity or habitat. It protects the status quo,” she said, noting the Corps indicated it would “buy” Pelotes Island as part of the mitigation agreement. “The island is already in conservation and was part of the mitigation agreement with JEA when it built its [coal-fired] power plants [in the 1980s], she said. “It is of no benefit to the St. Johns River.”

Also of concern to The Riverkeeper is a proposed amendment to Senate Bill 10. Submitted by State Senator Rob Bradley (Rep.) of Fleming Island and the App-ropriations Subcommittee on Environment and Natural Resources, the bill shifts funds from the state’s Land and Acquisition Trust Fund, meant for buying conservation land, to acquiring land for water supply development, she said. The amended bill would encourage surface and groundwater withdrawal projects and unsustainable growth, particularly in Central Florida, while not encouraging water conservation, she said.

“One of the biggest issues in Central Florida is that they are running out of drinking water. Instead of focusing on sustainable water conservation, they want to pump more than 160 million gallons of water from the St. Johns River every day,” Rinaman said, noting Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry also opposes this plan. Pumping water from the river and springs at such a high rate will allow further salt water intrusion in Jacksonville, with damage to grasses and trees already visible on the Ortega River, Goodby’s Creek, and Christopher Creek, to name a few, she said.

Of course, the Riverkeeper’s purpose is to fight the water pollution caused by fertilizers and leaky septic tanks, she said. One silver lining to the recent disastrous algae bloom on the Indian River, which one scientist termed was “as toxic as snake venom,” is that it forced government officials in Tallahassee to recognize its economic ramifications, she said.

Also of concern is House Bill 17, which changes the Florida Constitution’s Home Rule amendment, she said. It aims to strip away the rights of local citizens and municipalities to govern themselves by shifting power to the state government. Rinaman said her organization is waiting to see how this would affect local fertilizer ordinances and other protections for the St. Johns, which are currently in effect.

With the federal government’s recent plans to eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency and other state-wide environmental reversals that have taken place in the last five years, Rinaman said it often seems the Riverkeeper is fighting a losing battle, but she said her organization and its volunteers intend to “celebrate every positive step going forward.”

“If we work together, we can give the St Johns River a voice, give the Ortega River a voice, give Goodby’s Creek a voice, and all these other tributaries a voice,” she said. “If we stay connected and we collaborate, we can make a difference.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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