Guest column: Riverkeeper explains opposition to current dredging plans, The Florida Times-Union   9.3.15

St. Johns Riverkeeper has worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for more than three years in an effort to protect the St. Johns River and ensure the community has the information necessary to make a fully informed decision about the proposal to deepen the river channel from 40 to 47 feet.

By removing 18 million cubic yards of rock and sediment to make the river nearly 18 percent deeper, we know salt water will move farther upstream.

It has occurred with previous dredging projects and will happen again this time. This increase in salinity will likely damage or destroy hundreds of acres of wetlands, submerged grasses and trees in parts of the river and its tributaries, such as Julington Creek and the Ortega River. Critical habitat for fisheries and pollution filters for the river will be lost.

When the Corps of Engineers released the draft of the Environmental Impact Statement in June 2013, the study of the proposed dredging lacked critical analysis and data that were essential to the decision-making process.

In addition, the proposed mitigation plan to offset the anticipated damage to the river was woefully inadequate. As a result, we assembled a team of highly qualified experts to help us independently review the analysis and reports that were being conducted.

After careful evaluation of the impact statement and proposed plan by our experts and staff, we concluded the impacts to the river are being significantly underestimated, proposed mitigation would do nothing to offset damage, the projected economic benefits have been dramatically overstated and relevant information and facts have been excluded from analysis and/or public debate.

In July 2013, an independent expert peer review commissioned by the Corps of Engineers raised serious questions about some of the modeling results and conclusions of the impact statement, validating our concerns about the thoroughness and accuracy of the Army Corps’ evaluation.

For instance, the peer review determined that “the analysis and presentation of salinity results … provide an incomplete understanding of the impacts of channel enlargement.”

The independent expert panel also took issue with the economic analysis that was conducted, concluding regional benefits are overemphasized and “federal interest has not been demonstrated … because a multi-port analysis assessing competition among regional ports is not provided.”

Unfortunately, the Corps released its final impact statement in April 2014 without addressing many of the shortcomings of previous drafts. In addition, the Corps slashed the mitigation budget from $80 million to less than $3 million, putting our river at even greater risk.

We have gone to great lengths over the last three years to hold the Army Corps accountable, achieve meaningful mitigation for our river and collaborate with the Port Task Force, Chamber and others to seek a viable solution.

Our goal has never been to stop dredging. Our goal has always been to ensure a thorough evaluation of the project, a fully informed public dialogue and adequate protections for the St. Johns River.

The current plan for dredging doesn’t accomplish these objectives and instead exposes our river to untenable and unacceptable risk. We must look no further than Miami for evidence of the Corps’ propensity for mistakes, the potential for unintended consequences and why we need more mitigation.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrative recently said the dredging of Biscayne Bay has resulted in damage to the coral reefs that “greatly exceeds” the Corps’ projections by up to 10 times.

There is simply too much at stake to get this decision wrong. In accordance with our mission, we will continue to use all of the tools available to us to defend and protect our community’s greatest natural resource, the St. Johns River.

Lisa Rinaman, St. Johns Riverkeeper