Hurricane debris still a water hazard; more access opening to waterways

Hurricane debris still a water hazard; more access opening to waterways
Whether you’re looking at the cityscape from the St. Johns River or meandering down one of its inlets, the vantage point from a kayak is like no other.

The weather is warming up, which means boaters will be taking to the rivers of Northeast Florida, where they will find something old: reminders of Hurricane Irma – and something new: more access.

The impact of last September’s storm is still being felt in the area. Millions of gallons of water have finished draining through the St. Johns River Basin, and the salinity levels of the rivers have returned to normal, according to Dr. Quinton White, executive director of the Marine Science Center at Jacksonville University.

But debris from docks and bulkheads is still causing an issue, said Capt. Jim Suber, Jacksonville’s waterways coordinator and dockmaster.

“Irma is still affecting our city,” Suber said. “The debris issue is getting better, but we still have an occasional piece of a dock or bulkhead large enough to cause damage. I advise all boaters to pay attention to what’s ahead of you. Be on the lookout for floating debris or anything that could cause damage or injury.”

Many of the docks damaged in the storm have been repaired but those with major damage that required engineering work have taken longer to fix, Suber said. They include The Jacksonville Landing, County Dock, the pier at the Lions Club Boat Ramp, Dames Point Park and the Trout River floating dock.

The City of Jacksonville is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get the repairs done.

“There’s a procedure that has to be followed, and we’re in the middle of it,” Suber said. “We’re in the engineering stage of most of the work. We’ll be getting the jobs out for bid and repair.”

Some of the docks will have improvements made, mostly raising them a couple of feet, in an effort to prevent future damage.

“In Irma the floodwater carried the floating docks over the pilings, so they were sitting on the pilings. We’re going to do some mitigation so that when you have a good flood like we got with Irma, it doesn’t go over the dock. We want to make them more stable and wider, so they can take a wave hit,” he said.

The County Dock boat ramp in Mandarin was replaced and a kayak access point was added, said Brian Burket, City waterfront project manager. Old pilings that were navigational hazards were removed. The fishing pier that was destroyed by Irma will be replaced. That project is in the design phase. In addition, parking has been improved so that people will not block nearby driveways.

The Mayport Boat Ramp, which is the busiest in the county, has an additional launch lane and dock improvements. The floating docks at Wayne B. Stevens on the Westside were replaced, Burket said.

The Riverfront Park Bulkhead Replace-ment project, on River Road in San Marco, which was delayed by Irma, is expected to be completed next month, according to city spokeswoman Tia Ford. It will include lighting and landscaping.

Most of the derelict vessels that sank during Irma have been removed by the Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, Suber said.

“They’ve done a fabulous job cleaning the derelict vessels that ran aground or ran astray. They pulled them out and put them on land and they are now dealing with the owners.”

But Suber cautioned that some derelict vessels might be on private property and could be a hazard to watercraft.

City getting serious about river access

Boaters, especially kayakers, will find it easier to get on the river this summer, and more access is on the way.

The  new kayak launch at Sidney Gefen Park on Riverside is now open. Burket said the shoreline launch at the end of Forest Street is the best place for downtown paddlers.

By next year, paddlers will have a new floating launch near the School Board Adinistration building on the Southbank. The launch, which is in the permitting process, will be accessible with adaptive features like grab bars and transition seats for people with varying abilities, Burket said. Construction will start later this year.

New floating docks are being planned for Post Street and Jackson Street in Riverside with space for the water taxi and four to six private vessels. And the floating dock on the Southbank behind Riverplace Tower will be expanded. They should be completed by early next year.

The City also is looking at ways to improve river access to the Riverside Arts Market, which has a floating dock that is restricted to Saturdays and daylight hours. Suber said the City is in talks with property owner Black Knight to expand access.

Exchange Island is adding two picnic shelters this month. Last year a floating dock, nature trail and benches and picnic tables were added, Burket said.

Jim King Park and Boat Ramp at Sisters Creek has two projects that will be underway this summer. Lights will be installed to the parking lot in the 24-hour facility, and the boater access points on the docks will be moved to deeper water. Burket said at low tide boats hit the mud bottom and can damage the docks. The work will not interfere with the kingfish tournament in July, he said.

The Joe Carlucci Boat Ramp, which was damaged by Irma, will get an upgrade with longer floating docks. “That’s a busy ramp,” Burket said. “During peak times people have to wait their turn to stage and launch their boat. We hope to make it a little easier. Work should start on that in late summer or early fall.”

Construction on a shoreline kayak launch in Northshore Park should begin in about a month, Burket said. And a 100-foot fishing pier parallel to the shore will be built this summer in Charles Reese Memorial Park.

The park at Half Moon Island at the north end of Main Street, a quarter of a mile from the Nassau County line, is in the design phase, Burket said. It will have a new boat ramp to give boaters access to the Nassau River, a fishing platform, a picnic shelter, restrooms and a lighted parking lot. Construction is expected to begin by the end of the year.

“We’re just trying to get the general public out on the waterways whether it’s in kayaks or Kraken Cycleboats that just opened up downtown,” Suber said. “Anything to make the downtown riverfront more entertaining for residents and visitors.”

The cycleboats are party boats that can be operated with pedaling power as well as an outboard motor, Suber said. They are based at River City Brewing Company.

Waterways Commissioner Jed Davis is heading up the Downtown River and Waterfront Experience Task Force that is looking at float-in movies somewhere off the Southbank, Suber said.

District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer and the Downtown Investment Authority are working on a series of small thematic parks along the Southbank and Northbank Riverwalks that would include activities like light and music shows, interactive features and more access to the river.

New guides for water usage

For paddlers, the Intracoastal Salt Marsh Paddling Guide has been updated. It’s the companion to the Greater Jacksonville Paddling Guide and the Timucuan Trail Waterway Guide. All three guides are available online and in print at

The new Intracoastal guide more accurately reflects the location of launches, including new ones, route descriptions, ease or difficulty of access, GPS coordinates and whether they are near restrooms and restaurants, said John November, executive director of the Public Trust which produces the guides.

The new guide includes all the new conservation land that has been purchased by Atlantic Beach, including Riverbranch Preserve and Crying Child Island.

“It addresses how easy each launch point is to get to and where there is a long trail to the dock,” November said. “We also show the depths, so people know which launch points can be difficult to get to at low tide.”

The Public Trust is working with the City of Jacksonville to update and reprint them regularly, November said.

In addition, boaters and fishermen can find lots of information at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website —

Visit Jacksonville has recently enhanced its website to include more information about water-based activities. Check out the new information at The City also is working on an upgrade for its website that will feature more outdoor recreation information. It will be launched later in the year.

Dredging projects

Boaters need to be alert to several dredging projects that are occurring in the river and the Intracoastal Waterway. Boaters are urged to use caution in these areas.

The first phase of the controversial $484 million project to deepen three miles of the shipping channel is expected to be underway by summer, Suber said. Initial work began in February but then stopped because of equipment issues.

In the Intracoastal, the Mile Point construction site in the Chicopit Bay is in phase two of a dredging project designed to improve navigation at the point where the Intracoastal intersects the St. Johns River. The project includes the restoration of the Great Marsh Island with oyster and grass beds and the construction of a waterway wall. When the project is complete, Suber said, the waters in the area should be calmer.

Farther north, sediment is being dredged at Saltpit Creek and Amelia Island Park at Nassau Sound.

Safety first, fun follows

Suber said the first priority of any boater should be safety.

He recommends all boats be inspected by the Sail and Power Squadron or the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and boat owners take the American Boating Course.

Every boat should be outfitted with usable, wearable life vests for every person on board and a whistle or horn to get someone’s attention.

Fire extinguishers are another important piece of equipment, Suber said. They should be charged and not too old. If it is more than 10 years old, it should be replaced. And, if it’s a Kidde brand, check the manufacturer’s website because several models have been recalled. Go to

And before going out on the water, make a boat plan and tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back.

“Tell someone who will miss you if you don’t come back,” Suber said. “If they know where you’re going, that can help narrow the search and give the searchers a better chance of finding you.”

And, like cars, boats need insurance. If, for instance, a boat hits a private dock, it’s the boater who pays for the damage, he said.

By Lilla Ross
Resident Community News

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