Democracy in Dredging

There is increasing controversy in Northeast Florida regarding the Army Corps of Engineers’ harbor-deepening plans for the St. Johns River. This harbor-deepening would require dredging a 13-mile portion of the river to increase the depth from 40 feet to 47 feet. The rationale for this proposed dredging is that a deeper harbor will allow JaxPort to accommodate post-Panamax ships, increase trade and create local jobs.

The proposed dredging of the river occurs at a time when the Jacksonville community actively debates what kind of city it wants to be in the future. This is most evident in the JAX2025 initiative, which has successfully pulled together various sectors of the community to consult, comment and plan for that future. To date, those who participated in the JAX2025 events identified and prioritized goals for the city, as well as the appropriate steps and benchmarks for attaining those long-term objectives. Notably, the objective listed as target No. 2 is to ensure that Jacksonville is “clean and green.” Additionally, a task force has already been established to make Jacksonville more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly. These objectives, when combined with the ongoing public discussion about the health and welfare of the St. Johns River, suggest that there’s a large constituency within Jacksonville that aims to part ways from environmentally unsustainable habits and, instead, craft a more climate-friendly future.

There is nothing new about the Corps’ and JaxPort’s desire to dredge the St. Johns River. In fact, the river has been dredged, rerouted and rechanneled for the past 130 years. From Downtown Jacksonville to the point where it spills into the Atlantic Ocean, there is little that is natural about this beloved waterway. The Corps’ proposal is symptomatic of a way of thinking that’s becoming increasingly outmoded; namely, that nature and the environment exist solely to be harnessed to human economic productivity. Indeed, these goals seem oddly out of step with environmental and climate change sensibilities that are sweeping the rest of the country, not to mention the world.

In 1987, the United Nations issued a clarion call for “sustainable development” with the publication of its Brundtland Commission report, “Our Common Future.” The report indicated that economic development practices up until then had been unsustainable because they were based on the misconception that natural resources were infinite. Moreover, the report famously declared that resources for future generations should no longer be 
sacrificed for the needs of the present. More than two-and-a-half decades after that declaration, and with mounting evidence of climate change, risks and threats, it appears that the moment has arrived for human populations to take the mandate of sustainability more seriously.

Less well-known is the fact that the Brundtland Commission also identified local community participation as essential to sustainable development and democracy. From the early 1990s onward, development projects in the so-called Third World have been required to both encourage and demonstrate community participation. In the years since, these “participatory requirements” have migrated from the developing to the developed world. The Corps’ attempts to encourage public comment, consultation and discussion of the Harbor Deepening Project are an instantiation of this global trend.

Since May 2012, the Corps has engaged in a series of practices meant to inform the public about the harbor-deepening proposal and, ostensibly, respond to community questions and concerns. This has included at least four in-person public meetings and a series of conference calls that, theoretically, are open to the public.

The problem with the Corps’ public consultation process has not been one of disclosure; indeed, as they themselves repeatedly attest, all of the information about the dredging project is transparently available on the website. The problem has been one of outreach. The sincerity of a desire to involve community participation can be discerned in the amount of public outreach in a particular campaign, project or institution.

JAX2025’s successful public outreach and community building, for example, stands in stark contrast to the Corps’ efforts. Unfortunately, the Corps’ community participation efforts mirror practices that have a negative reputation in the developing world, because they’re often disingenuous and obfuscatory. When a particular institution or project is required to solicit “public comment” and “participation,” it’s often done in a perfunctory manner, just to check off a technocratic box.

The Corps, for example, invites the public to participate in monthly conference calls, but how is a Jacksonville citizen to know about the conference calls unless they’re already on the Corps’ invitation list? Does the random person who might have a concern about the fate of the St. Johns River know that they should visit the Corps’ website and navigate through several links before finding the harbor-deepening documents buried deep in a digital labyrinth? During the April meeting at the Main Public Library, a woman asked why it was that she, as a property owner already impacted by past dredging, had only found out about that meeting from a neighbor, and why conference calls were held at 10 a.m. Mondays (when most people were at work). Another person criticized the Corps’ over-reliance on email invitations, wondering about folks not digitally connected.

Much to its credit, the Corps increased its outreach, started scheduling conference calls after regular working hours, and began its most recent June 27 public comment session with the announcement that they’d heeded the critique about being unresponsive to community concerns. As evidence, a poster session was presented to offer technical information about the project prior to the meeting. When the session opened, only a few brief comments were made by Corps and JaxPort personnel — then the microphone was turned over to the public.

As in past sessions, community members of various stripes voiced reservations about the project and the ambiguity in which the risks and benefits seemed shrouded. Property owners along the St. Johns River bank who allege to have lost property to past dredging projects frequently speak out. The Corps’ draft Environmental Impact Study came under targeted scrutiny from a smaller group.

Kevin Bodge, a coastal and port engineer, found the report “extremely deficient in detail and scope.” Quinton White, a biologist who’s studied the St. Johns for decades, echoed these concerns, noting the report did little to produce a meaningful public dialogue to weigh alleged economic benefits against the projected environmental risks. David Jaffee, who’s produced a critical economic assessment of JaxPort expansion, pointed out that the projected benefits of harbor-deepening would “accrue primarily to shippers and carriers. There is no necessary or automatic relationship between these kinds of cost reductions and the expansion of the local economy or an improvement in the economic quality of life.”

Finally, St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said that the “Riverkeeper has serious concern that ACOE is stripping us of the opportunity to engage in meaningful public participation due to the amount of critical information missing” from the report, and that there was too much at risk to allow the fate of the St. Johns River to be fast-tracked through President Barack Obama’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative. A representative of the local recreational community suggested the city might take advantage of the river in a different way; namely, promote Jacksonville as an ecotourist and recreational destination.

Democracy requires participation, and legitimately democratic processes are fully participatory in scope. Participation may include critical commentary unsolicited by those in charge of the “public comment” process. The number of community members showing up for the Corps’ public comment sessions, and the concerns they raise, have increased in quantity and scope since the Corps began this process more than a year ago. While the mandate of participation as the bedrock of sustainable development has a dismal reputation in the development world, one hopes the Corps can do better.

Simon is a UNF anthropology professor.