If We Dredge It, Will They Come? And is it Worth the Risk?


Without clean drinking water, humanity is doomed. Yet Americans have become so accustomed to having infinite amounts of water available at the turn of a tap that Northeast Floridians dump half our potable water on landscaping, think almost nothing of Central Florida receiving a permit to withdraw millions more gallons from St. Johns River every day, roll our eyes when advocates talk about undamming the Ocklawaha River, and shrug noncommittally when asked whether dredging the river down to four times its original depth is a good idea.

Most people care about water only in theory, not in practice. The singular thing people seem to care about without reservation is money.

Money is the driving force behind the push to deepen the St. Johns River shipping channel to accommodate larger Post-Panamax ships that will begin traversing the Panama Canal later this year. Hungering to increase its share of both that cargo and the Asian container trade, the Jacksonville Port Authority, or JaxPort, has spent the better part of a decade pursuing deep water; it’s done a rather good job selling the dredge to politicians and other holders of the purse strings. Dredge the river, make money; don’t dredge, lose money: It’s a digestible argument that is easy to get behind.

But in spite of the fanfare of press releases and pink-cheeked politicians like Governor Rick Scott parachuting in for smiling photo ops whenever JaxPort lands a big fish like Maersk Line or Volkswagen, many economists and environmentalists are not buying what the port, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Martin Associates and Xicon Economics (more on that later) are selling. They do not believe rosy projections about the economic benefits of deepening; they aren’t convinced by the Corps’ optimistic predictions that scooping 18 million cubic yards of river bottom will have negligible environmental impacts on the river, its inhabitants and adjacent areas.

The Corps estimates that deepening 13 miles of the St. Johns River shipping channel from 40 to 47 feet will cost $750 million — $350 million of which is to be paid by the federal government. The city or the state is on the hook for the rest. Nancy Rubin, senior communications director for JaxPort, said Florida is offering “significant funding” for the project in next year’s budget, but could not provide specifics. Rubin also said that the project is on the Department of Transportation’s five-year plan.

So the city’s portion for the deepening could be as much as several hundred million dollars — or it could be nothing. In the face of this uncertainty, the project proceeds.

According to Rubin, the port has quietly kept pace with the Port of Savannah, which last fall began a deepening project that is scheduled to reach completion in 2021. Given that the Corps estimated the St. Johns River dredging project will take five or six years, if what Rubin hints is true, the deepening could start in a matter of months.

Citing the long history of government entities underestimating or poorly calculating project costs, critics like University of North Florida professor Dr. David Jaffee, who has studied and written extensively about the project, believe that it will cost far, far more than anticipated, as much as a billion dollars or more. Further, expenses do not end when the channel is deepened; costs continue to the tune of $800,000 to $1 million each year to maintain the channel at that depth, as well as to potentially improve transportation infrastructure surrounding the facility, upgrade and extend JaxPort’s container yard and raise bulkheads to accommodate the wake of the larger ships anticipated.

An economic assessment commissioned by the port in 2013 indicates that even if the project will cost a billion dollars, it will return far, far more to the economy.

In its assessment, Martin Associates concluded that, by 2035, deepening would create as many as 34,508 jobs and generate $10.8 billion to $12.7 billion in cumulative economic benefit. Critics point out that these include “related jobs,” which the assessment goes on to state, “[W]hen the impact models are used for planning purposes, related jobs should not be used to measure the economic benefits of a particular project.” Less than half the projected jobs — 13,700 — are with the port itself. According to its website, the port currently employs 150 people.

Rubin said, “If we shut our gates tomorrow, nearly 25,000 people would not work the next day. Those are not people employed by JaxPort. Those are people employed by private sector businesses … truck drivers, logistics managers, warehouse folks, delivery people, Homeland Security agents, the folks who actually need the port gates to be opening.”

In his paper, “Understanding and Critically Analyzing the Port Economy and JaxPort Channel Deepening,” Dr. Jaffee wrote, “[I]n fact, the accurate figures based on the Martin Associates data are 841 and 5,587, respectively. This colossal discrepancy between the reported and actual numbers is due to either inexcusable unprofessional carelessness or deliberate deception.”

Jaffee points out that there’s no way to be sure that any of these projections are even correct. Martin Associates has routinely been criticized for refusing to let anyone take a peek at the models it uses to project economic benefits, on the grounds that such is proprietary.

Another point skeptics make is that the Corps did not conduct a multiport analysis of this project, which they believe indicates that it did not believe JaxPort would attract more cargo as a result of deepening the channel. Rather, the Corps analyzed whether the project would benefit the national economy and the shipping industry as a whole.

“When [the Corps] looks at the economics of these projects, they don’t look to impacts to the local economy whatsoever, they only look at the reduction of costs to shippers,” said the St. Johns Riverkeeper, Lisa Rinaman.

Hofstra University professor Jean-Paul Rodrigue, one of the world’s foremost transportation economics experts, said that cities like Jacksonville are banking on deepening enabling them to capture a larger portion of the market in spite of the reality that competition among ports is a “zero sum game,” and “whatever somebody gains is going to be at expense of the other.”

“The bigger ships are not going to create by magic more business,” he said.

Rodrigue also said that bigger ships might lead to a concentration of traffic at one time, but not necessarily more cargo, and noted that, because ports are increasingly relying on automation, they have become more disconnected from local economies.

Further, Rodrigue said, the global economic growth slowdown makes it less likely that there will be enough increase of traffic to justify all the deep water ports, which includes 14 on the Eastern Seaboard and, in the Southeast, seven within 500 nautical miles, four of which are in Florida: Miami, Everglades, Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville. (Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Wilmington, North Carolina round out the list.)

Nevertheless, JaxPort believes that there’s enough cargo for everyone.

“There’s enough business to go around and there are enough qualifications here in Jacksonville that make us ideally suited to capture a great deal of that Asian container trade,” Rubin said.

In part to settle, once and for all, the question of whether deepening was going to reap substantial economic benefits, in December 2014 Jacksonville hired its own economist to analyze the project: Xicon Economics, which cheerily agreed that if the port was dredged, the money would come.

In addition to loving all things infrastructure investment, through some basic Googling last year Folio Weekly Magazine broke the story that Xicon’s owner, Dr. Dr. Herbert J. Barber Jr. (that double-title is not a typo) penned the book Fall of a Nation: A Biblical Perspective of a Modern Problem, in which he espoused ideas so abhorrent that then-Mayor Alvin Brown responded to an email containing some of the most colorful portions with a hasty recrimination of its contents.

The city was still on the hook for the $60K it had agreed to pay Xicon, however. But at least it got what it paid for: Xicon concluded that the project was economically and financially feasible, would cost $813 million and create between $3.9 and $7.8 billion of benefits to the local economy by 2030. Some would say the wide range between Xicon’s and Martin’s predictions ($3.9 to $7.8 billion by 2030 versus $10.8 to $12.7 by 2035) illustrates the subjectivity of economic projections.

On April 1, the St. Johns Riverkeeper filed a Petition for Formal Administrative Hearing with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to challenge the Environmental Resource Permit & Variance the port received to dredge. Its position is that deepening the historically 12-to-14-foot-deep St. Johns River another seven feet — counting allowable and required overdepth, as much as 11 feet — will cause far greater environmental harm than the Corps projects.

“That permit falls short. It does not protect the river. It does not meet the laws that are in place to protect our river,” Rinaman said. “… It will cause degradation beyond what the law allows. There will be impacts to the river itself, there will be impacts to water quality; there will be impacts to habitat.”

The Corps originally included $80 million in environmental mitigation costs, but according to Corps project manager Jason Harrah, after completing its environmental impact statement, reduced it to $3 million because it believes that dredging 13 miles of the St. Johns River shipping channel from 40 to 47 feet will have minimal environmental impacts.

The Riverkeeper believes that the deepening has the potential to change the entire ecosystem of the river, which runs through Timucuan Preserve and other protected areas, and negatively impact wildlife like the endangered West Indian manatee and dolphins, as well as fish stocks.

Jacksonville University biology and marine science professor A. Quinton White Jr., who has been advocating for and studying the river since the ’70s, believes that the dredging will tax a river that is already suffering and unhealthy as evidenced by fish kills, green algae blooms and a mysterious foam appearing in recent years. Dr. White noted that last time the river was deepened, in 2010, subsequently there was what is known as an “unusual marine mortality event”: 19 bottlenose dolphins died.

Launching an investigation into the deaths, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration said in a release that November, “The majority of the St. Johns River dolphin strandings occurred in the northern portion of the river near Jacksonville, FL, in an area which experienced elevated fish mortalities between May and July 2010.” The 2010 dredge was completed that July. The cause of the dolphins’ deaths was never definitively determined.

NOAA also noted that in 19 years, there had been 51 unusual marine mortality events in the United States and that, in a typical year, no more than six bottlenose dolphins perish in the St. Johns River.

Northeast Florida commercial fisherman Robbie Scholl recalled the effect dredging had the last time the channel was deepened.

“When you stir up that much mud and water, the fish population, it smothers a lot of fish and what it doesn’t smother seemed to leave, just disappear,” Scholl said. “And they do eventually come back, but it’s not done overnight, it’s not done in a month. The more they dredge up there, the worse our river gets.”

Scholl, 69, who has been fishing the St. Johns River since he was 12 years old, believes that this dredge will have an even greater effect on the river than the last one. He said that the “salt line,” the furthest upriver that seawater travels, which can be measured by the presence of salt-tolerant species, has moved many miles upriver since his youth, from Green Cove Springs to close to Palatka.

Standing on the banks of the Ocklawaha River, historically the largest tributary of the St. Johns, two weeks ago during the Riverkeeper’s Save Our River Tour, wetland scientist Robin Lewis said, “We have records that indicate that the flow of the St. Johns River has been reduced by, believe it or not, 50 percent.” Diminished flow makes the river less capable of flushing out toxins and other pollutants and increases the extremes in fluctuations of salt and freshwater that occur with the tides.

Increases in salinity were one of the main focuses of the Corps’ environmental impact study for this project; increased salinity has the potential to threaten the many species that depend on the river, estuaries and tributaries for spawning, sustenance and habitat.

The year that the Corps studied the river was relatively dry; it has since taken the position that this improved their understanding of salinity shifts in the St. Johns River.

Dr. White disagrees with that logic, saying that one of the ways the Corps’ reasoning is flawed is that it relies on averages, when in reality, extreme conditions cause the greatest fluctuations.

“What we’re seeing already from dredging and water withdrawal and pumping the aquifer is a dramatic difference in how the river responds to rain … now it rains and we’ll get dramatic spikes of freshwater going out, and when it stops raining, the [salinity spikes],” he said.

White isn’t the only one who has noticed a difference in how the river responds to rain since the 2010 dredging.

“When they open that channel up, when it floods, you don’t get the tides going up into the estuary … You don’t get any life-sustaining nutrients for the fish and crabs that live in the river,” said Scholl.

Because this project was included in President Barack Obama’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative, the Corps conducted the environmental impact study at a greatly accelerated rate; the initiative cut seven years from the project’s timetable. Environmentalists believe that the fast tracking exacerbated flaws in the process. The Corps disagrees.

Harrah said that the reduced timetable affected its work in a “positive way,” and was “more of a transformation of the Corps’ process,” and, better yet, it saved time and taxpayers’ money.

In a 2013 letter to the Corps, NOAA took issue with most of its recommendations. NOAA said that it was “concerned about the impacts to tidal creek systems, especially those in the Trout River, Ortega River, Julington Creek, and Black Creek.” It went on to say, “In regards to soils, it is known that increases in salinity cause an increase in hydrogen sulfide production along with a decrease in soil stability. This results in soil subsidence and more frequent tidal flooding, which further enlarges the area impacted.” NOAA said that salinity impacts were already being seen in the river, its tributaries and tidal freshwater forested systems, the effects of which are known to impact white shrimp, red drum, and other species.

Further, NOAA opined that the Corps’ use of the Uniform Mitigation Assessment Method to create “base mitigation plan to purchase and preserve 585.43 acres of freshwater wetlands and adjoining uplands and 43.77 acres of saltmarsh wetlands and adjoining uplands” led it to “[conclude] that UMAM is not particularly sensitive to the impacts expected by saltwater intrusion.”

“Preserving existing healthy [submerged aquatic vegetation] and tidal freshwater wetlands does not sufficiently compensate the public for the ecosystem services that will be lost due to deepening the federal navigation channel,” NOAA said.

In a subsequent letter in 2014, NMFS said that although it was concerned that the Corps had not adopted the essential fish habitat conservation recommendations, it had met its legal obligations.

In February, JaxPort’s board agreed to be responsible for the costs of monitoring — and mitigating — environmental harm for a period of 10 years, potentially exposing the port and the city to tens of millions of dollars of liability. But, as Dr. White Jr. pointed out, “I could tell you definitively that you could conclude from monitoring anything you want … you can never isolate the deepening from all the other things that are going on.”

Like many, Dr. White doesn’t trust the Corps in part because of its track record, particularly its recent gross miscalculations of potential environmental harm in the PortMiami Deep Dredge Project. Soon after the project began, vast swaths of coral were covered in sediment, ultimately four times more area allowed under the permit based on the Corps’ projections. Much of that coral reef perished; most believe that being smothered in sediment caused the deaths.

But the Miami Herald reports that now the Corps claims a virus caused 85 percent of the deaths, not sediment. Environmentalists counter that the virus, white plague disease, is known to spread when coral is under stress, such as what happens when it’s covered in silt from a nearby dredging project.

Yet another concern environmentalists have is about the potential of the blasting this project requires to penetrate the surficial aquifer that the Corps reports provides 5 percent of the city’s drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 4.3 million cubic yards of rock may need to be moved from the riverbed.

But the Corps isn’t worried.

“It is anticipated that blasting will occur for this project. However, the Jacksonville District has a very high success rate for conducting confined blasting in environmentally sensitive areas, such as San Juan and Miami Harbor.” Miami Harbor, indeed.

The St. Johns River is a finite natural resource that has long suffered harm in the name of economic improvement. No one doubts that JaxPort brings jobs and money to the region. But is deepening the channel to 47 feet and, in the process, spending hundreds of millions, potentially billions, of taxpayer dollars necessary to maintain a viable port? And is it worth the potential environmental costs to a river that might not be able to afford it? As other cities have learned, there is a point of no return beyond which a body of water may take decades or more to rehabilitate.

“JaxPort has the same goals as the Riverkeeper: to keep our river healthy and thriving and to have a healthy, thriving economy,” Rubin wrote via email.

At issue moving forward is how to strike a balance between those goals while preserving the river for future generations.

“Once the damage is done, it’s really next to impossible to undo,” Rinaman said.

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