The Deep WATER War

“It’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.”

The Jacksonville Port Authority must have taken this ancient adage to heart. For despite passionate opposition and a lawsuit, the port is pursuing a project to dredge 11 miles of the St. Johns River shipping channel from 40 to 47 feet with all the determination of a Kardashian vying for the cover of Us Weekly.

On Monday, it was standing room only at JaxPort’s board meeting to vote on the project, though rubber stamp is a more fitting description.

Ostensibly the board made its decision following public comment, but everyone in that room knew what was up as we heard port stakeholder after port stakeholder—interspersed with a sprinkling of opponents—talk about how darn tootin’ grand it will be for everybody if the shipping channel is deepened. Apparently ‘everybody’ is synonymous with a handful of wealthy businesspersons and executives, port employees and owners of adjacent commercial property.

One gentleman in favor of dredging actually said the benefits would “trickle down” to the rest of us. It seems fair to assume he hasn’t heard the classic bit that likens trickle down economics to rich people pissing on poor people’s heads.

To no one’s surprise, they approved the dredge.

They didn’t ask City Council’s permission. They didn’t ask John and Jane Q. Public’s permission. Why would they? The port has pinned its hopes and dreams on deepening the river to accommodate post-Panamax cargo ships. To hell with us if we don’t like it.

As it pursues dredging with single-mindedness bordering on obsession, the port doesn’t seem to care that it hasn’t complied with the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding it signed with the St. Johns Riverkeeper, Jax Chamber and the city in 2015, in which the Riverkeeper agreed not to file suit to block the project if the Ocklawaha River was restored to its natural flow. Or that, as the MOU got all of them in hot water with citizens of Clay County who love the Rodman Reservoir as much as they loathe reading in the paper that their neighbors are planning to drain it, the Riverkeeper is now suing to stop the dredging, arguing that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ analysis underestimates the damage the project will wreak upon the river.

Nor does it seem to care that the economic windfall its paid consultant predicted dredging would create is so full of holes it could get a second job as a colander. Or that Savannah, Charleston and Miami are all miles ahead with their dredging projects. Or that the city has not agreed to pick up its $47-$150 million share of dredging tab, which would start coming due in 2020. Not to mention that the city has a backlog of costly, important projects that won’t line satin pockets with gold.

There’s one thing and one thing only that JaxPort cares for: deeper water.

So what’s wrong with dredging, anyway? Not much for a healthy river.

But the St. Johns River isn’t exactly healthy. Toxic algal blooms do not happen in healthy rivers. Mass fish kills do not happen in healthy rivers. Mysterious foams do not appear on surfaces of healthy rivers. Unusual marine mortality events do not occur in healthy rivers.

During a 2013 algal bloom, toxin levels 100 times higher than that which is considered safe by the World Health Organization were found in our river. In a 2010 fish kill that Riverkeeper Executive Director Jimmy Orth told the Florida Times-Union was “unprecedented,” scores of dead fish were seen floating from the Buckman Bridge to Lake George. That year, strange foam appeared along miles of riverbank and 19 bottlenose dolphins mysteriously died in the river in mere months. Their deaths were deemed an “unusual marine mortality event”; in a typical year, at most six dolphins die in our river, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

You know what else happened in 2010? The port deepened the St. Johns River. (“Port of Dreams,” Folio Weekly, April 13, 2016) Officially, of course, the dredging didn’t cause any of the problems. They just coincidentally happened during it or soon thereafter.

Our river is stressed, overtaxed by Central Florida water draws and pollutants. The last thing it needs is more abuse.

Still, paying no heed the objections of economists, fiscal conservatives, environmentalists, taxpayers, logistics experts, the former CEO of CSX, and lowly editors, the port is doing as it damn well pleases with our river. It’s like port authorities believe that the river is theirs, not ours, and have forgotten that the port, a public asset, works for us, not the other way around.

As the port and the river are ours, if this project screws our river over, we’ll have only ourselves, and our representatives, to blame. I’m guessing forgiveness will come quickly for some, never for others. But, hey, as long as those ships come in, who cares?