Jacksonville City Council Unanimously Approves $75M For St. Johns River Dredging

Jul 28, 2020

The Jacksonville City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved $75 million in funding for the ongoing St. Johns River dredging project.

The ordinance will provide a $35 million grant and a $40 million loan to the Jacksonville Port Authority (JAXPORT) for the project. The loan will be repaid to the city periodically as JAXPORT gets reimbursement from the Florida Department of Transportation.

According to a legislative summary, the bill's preamble says the city is commiting to fund an additional $25 million grant to the dredging project in the 2020 to 2021 fiscal year budget. That grant amount could be increased by another $10 million with City Council approval, depending on the bids received by the Army Corps of Engineers for Phase C of the project.

JAXPORT says deepening the river from 40 feet to 47 feet will accommodate more cargo on heavier ships, potentially creating or protecting thousands of jobs - a point reiterated by many of the City councilmembers who spoke during Tuesday’s meeting.

“I see the big ships off the beach all the time, and I see one thing out there: jobs, jobs, and more jobs,” said District 13 Councilman Rory Diamond, who represents the Beaches.

But Jimmy Orth, executive director of the St. Johns Riverkeeper advocacy group, says the environmental damage being done by the dredging will outweigh any economic gains.

A federal judge recently ruled against the Riverkeeper’s attempt to halt the dredging project. 

Related: Federal Judge Rejects St. Johns Riverkeeper’s Bid To Halt River Deepening

The Riverkeeper originally filed the lawsuit in April of 2017 and expanded the legal challenge after Hurricane Irma led to massive local flooding, contending that the deepening would make flooding worse and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers didn’t adequately assess the environmental impacts of the project.

“Not only does this plan do nothing to offset even the damage the Corps has acknowledged is likely, it leaves us with absolutely no room for error. Our river is too complex, the models too imprecise and imperfect, our knowledge too limited, and the potential consequences too great to blindly accept the Corps’ analysis,” Orth said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The 2019 Lower St. Johns River Basin “State of the River” Report found that the dredging, along with sea level rise, was also contributing to higher salinity in the river and its tributaries. 

According to Jacksonville University research scientist Gerry Pinto, the report’s principal investigator, those changes in salinity can disrupt the life cycles of freshwater and saltwater fish, which local commercial fisheries depend on. 

“And then that, of course, has an economic effect,” he explained at Jacksonville’s 2019 Environmental Symposium.

Related: New St. Johns River Report Highlights Several Worrying Trends

The JU report suggests the dredging could also contribute to a loss of submerged aquatic vegetation, like hardwood swamps and tape grass, which are considered critical habitats that provide nursery areas for organisms and food for larger species like manatees. Submerged aquatic vegetation also helps improve water quality, prevents erosion, and even traps and buries large amounts of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas that is causing climate change.

“I just want to make it very clear that I’m not giving up on mitigation,” said District 14 Councilwoman Randy DeFoor, who chairs Jacksonville’s Special Committee on Resiliency, which has been tasked with preparing the city for the effects of sea level rise. She said she has been assured by JAXPORT that they will work with the City Council to ensure that action is taken to lessen any environmental impacts that may arise from the dredging.

The 13-mile federally authorized dredging project is estimated to cost $484 million and is expected to be completed sometime in 2023.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.