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On Last Leg Of Tour, St. Johns Riverkeeper Files Suit Against State Over Dredging

Ryan Benk

Editor's note: This article has been modified to clarify the parties involved in the lawsuit.

On the final leg of a conservation-awareness tour, the St. Johns Riverkeeper announced Friday it’s suing to halt plans to deepen the river.

The lawsuit is challenging state environmental regulators' approval of a Jacksonville plan to accommodate larger ships at JAXPORT.

At the Mandarin Holiday Marina, a strong breeze cuts through the heat as sailboat ropes clanged against the masts.

St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman’s feet touched dry land after hours on the water for her group’s “Save the St. Johns” tour. Rinaman and some volunteers have been boating the full length of the river for nearly two weeks, with stops along the way for to chat with reporters.

Today, her tone is urgent.

“So today we filed a petition challenging the state permit,” she said.

That permit allows the deepening of sections of the St. Johns River by more than 40 feet. The Riverkeeper is already planning a separate federal challenge to the dredging plan. Rinaman said the new suit challenges the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s approval of a deepening permit.

“Right now the state is relying on virtually no mitigation. So there’s no offset to undo the damage and to protect and fortify this river before the dredging is done,” she said. “They did not model the tributaries to show that there will be no impact to the important tributaries throughout this community, and they’re waiving some extremely important water quality protections.”

Although tacitly supportive of some policies, many environmentalists have viewed Gov. Rick Scott’s DEP as little more than a rubber stamp for polluters. The latest skirmish took place in Tallahassee, where after three years, lawmakers finally passed an industry-backed overhaul to the state’s water policy which transfers some more of DEP’s authority to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Since taking office in 2010, Scott has also cut staff and funding at DEP and the state’s water management districts.

Still, Rinaman said the riverkeeper isn't inherently opposed to dredging.

“We aren’t anti-dredging just to be anti-dredging. We’re pro protecting the St. Johns River and this dredging plan does not do that,” Rinaman said.

Instead, she said the Army Corps’ plan should’ve called for breaching the Rodman Dam, which bisects the Ocklawaha River. Dredging opponents said the breach would bring much extra water to the St. Johns and allow the surrounding swamp land to act as a natural filter for increased salinity and pollution runoff.

When the riverkeeper announced its intent to file a federal lawsuit in August, the JAX Chamber pulled its support for the dam breach. The riverkeeper originally said it would drop the federal challenge if the chamber and First Coast lawmakers could secure funding for the project.

Rinaman also said doing away with those protections could reproduce massive fish kills like what’s gripping the Indian River Lagoon in Central Florida. As the state suit works its way through the courts,  the Riverkeeper will keep prepping the federal challenge it announced in August.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.