Townhall meeting raises dredging, high water concerns

When Hurricane Irma flooded Janice Young’s 99-year-old St. Johns Quarter home last fall, causing her to retreat to the second floor, it was a scary experience she never wants to occur again. “It stopped my business, it stopped my life,” she said. “Is it going happen again? I want the city to do its part and I want the Corps to do a lot more than it is doing now.”

During the first of four townhall meetings held at Sun-Ray Cinema in 5 Points June 21, panelist Dr. Quinton White said there are a number of things that can be done to mitigate flooding in the St. Johns River, “but City Council doesn’t want to do that because that’s money and you don’t want to do it because it will increase your taxes,” he said, referring to increasing street sweeping to prevent debris from getting to the river.

The standing-room-only event, “River Uprising,” hosted by the St. Johns Riverkeeper, was billed as taking a “deep dive into issues affecting our community at the start of hurricane season,” and panelists discussed the impact of rising seas, earlier St. Johns River dredging projects, and the dredging currently underway.

Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman moderated a discussion with White, executive director of Jacksonville University’s Marine Science Research Institute, and Florida Times-Union reporter Nate Monroe who, with reporter Christopher Hong, wrote a special report, “As the Ocean Creeps In” about how decades of channelizing and dredging the river has left Jacksonville more susceptible to severe storms, flood events, and rising waters.

After 30 minutes of tossing questions to White and Monroe, Rinaman opened the floor to the audience, whose concerns ranged from environmental mitigation, to increased flooding from the dredging, erosion, the impact on fisheries, and more.

In regard to mitigating the effects on the St. Johns River and its tributaries by the nearly $700 million Jacksonville harbor deepening project, White said there were a number of things – in addition to street sweeping – that could be done, such as remove or breach the Ocklawaha River dam to increase the flow, and do eco-restoration on tributaries, such as the Fishweir Creek project.

Rinaman said early on in the harbor deepening project there was $80 million earmarked for mitigation projects, but as the Riverkeeper was trying to negotiate a “tactical menu of options,” the Army Corps of Engineers gutted the line item to less than $3 million. “Because the City does not have all of the money it needs from the Federal government for dredging, this is a good time for some mitigation,” said Monroe. “Attach that money to the big Federal project because once that opportunity goes away you’re left trying to pursue eco-restoration projects piecemeal.”

White and Monroe also tackled questions about the increase in flooding as a result of the Jacksonville Port Authority (JaxPort) project to deepen the channel from 40 to 47 feet to allow larger container ships to come to Jacksonville.

Equating the channel to a hole, White said “The St. Johns River used to have a hole at the mouth that over time we have gradually increased from the size of a straw to a garden hose to a firehose to a storm drain, and that amount of water now comes into the river. It’s pure capacity.

“Coupled with allowing our tributaries to silt in, there’s no place for that water to go and it’s going to push up and into the wetlands,” said White. “We’ve gradually changed the ecosystem and watched the salinity level move further and further upstream. Now when it rains a lot and we get the sudden surges, the plants and animals that live in those environments can’t take that stress.”

Monroe added, “The river has been turned into a much more efficient carrier of water. Deepening makes the bottom of the river a uniform depth and that makes it smoother. And straightening the river shortened the distance waves have to move before they reach downtown.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Dave Bruderly, an engineer who has worked in dredging and storm water runoff for 51 years and who also has a background in merchant shipping, said the decisionmakers have not done their due diligence with respect to the economic justification for the project.

“It is based on obsolete technology,” he said. “The ships they want to bring to this port are not going to come to this port. The ships being launched in China and South Korea are drafting more than 47 feet, even 55 feet. They will not come to Jacksonville unless they are half empty.”

Bruderly challenged city leaders to perform honest, transparent due diligence on what they are proposing to do. “Everybody assumes that what the Corps of Engineers has done is a thorough vetting. What everybody has ignored is the fact the Corps only reviews the project proposed by JaxPort. They are not in the business of comparing our economic business model with Savannah or Charleston. They have not done a regional maritime transportation analysis,” said Bruderly. “We are building dredging projects to nowhere.”

As for the Corps, when the panel was asked if it “really was the guilty party,” White said, “As a community we asked them to do this.”

Monroe agreed. “The Corps did not do this to us. We asked them to dredge the river. The Corps would not be dredging the river were it not for the appetite by the City to get it done.”

Last Riverkeeper townhall meeting

Wednesday, July 11, 6-7:30 p.m.

Intuition Ale Works, 929 E. Bay Street

Share your thoughts on the issues raised by the Riverkeeper. Email [email protected]

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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