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Days 4, 5 and 6 of the Jan. 6 committee hearings will be repeated Saturday, July 2, at 10 a.m. on Jax PBS More! (7.4 and Comcast 212).

Jacksonville Port Deepening Raises Environmental Concerns

Peter Haden

At 310 miles long, the St. Johns is the longest river in Florida. It’s flat and slow, flowing at less than half a mile per hour, but the St. Johns is the state’s most important river for commerce and recreation. Its significance runs deep, but for some, a stretch of the river needs to run deeper.

"Identifying the deepening as a necessity to grow the port happened several years ago," said Nancy Rubin, Director of Communications for the Jacksonville Port Authority. JAXPORT wants to deepen 13 miles of the St. Johns at the mouth of the river from 40 feet to 47 feet.

That’s what modern, super sized ships need to deliver cars, electronics and thousands of jobs to the region, according to industry analysts.

"The handwriting is on the wall," said Rubin. "The ships are getting bigger. Many of them are currently too big to call on Jacksonville unless we deepen the river."

But critics of the deepening project are calling on Jacksonville to steer clear of the project.

"When you do the deep dredge you’re going to bring more saltwater into the system," said St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman. "This river will get saltier and saltier. That puts more stress on submerged grasses as well as wetlands and submerged trees."

Rinaman said the deepening plan - created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - underestimates the environmental harm and over-exaggerates the economic benefit.

"We are officially opposed to the dredging," said Rinaman, "because, at this point in time, there is no mitigation plan that will undo the harm the dredging will cause to the St. Johns."

Dr. Matthew Corrigan, chair of the Political Science Department at the University of North Florida, said in a state with so many resources - like Florida - it’s hard to strike a balance between growing the economy and protecting the environment.

"The state has always moved fairly aggressively to be business friendly -through tax breaks and less regulation,"  said Corrigan. "That philosophy has come into direct contrast with one of the big reasons people move to Florida: warm weather and the nice environment. The environment has a huge economic impact, if you think of all the tourist dollars."

As new housing, agriculture, and port projects across Florida are meet environmental opposition, the next governor will have to strike that balance.

You can follow Peter Haden on Twitter @HadenMedia.