Federal judge rules dredging of St. Johns River can continue

Dredge working in St. Johns River shipping channel (WJXT)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A federal judge has ruled the dredging of the St. Johns River by the Army Corps of Engineers can continue and rejected claims made in a lawsuit filed by the St. Johns Riverkeeper.

The lawsuit was filed in 2017, claiming the deepening of the channel would impact wetlands and the increase in salinity would harm ecosystems.

After Hurricane Irma caused historic flooding in Jacksonville, the Riverkeeper argued the deeper channel would make future flooding even more destructive.

The Riverkeeper asked the judge to order the Army Corps to do a supplemental environmental impact study.

The judge found that the Army Corps’ planning for the dredging met the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, and while the flooding from Irma was historic, it was not unforeseeable. The judge said high water levels even more severe than Irma were included in the Army Corps’ modeling.

The Army Corps is dredging an 11-mile stretch of the river to JaxPort’s Blount Island Marine Terminal, deepening the channel from 40 feet to 47 feet.

JaxPort released the following statement on the judge’s ruling:

“The Jacksonville Harbor Deepening Project is Northeast Florida’s single biggest opportunity to grow jobs and create economic prosperity for our community. The project — which was studied for more than a decade and is supported with significant state and federal funding — is critical to the economic vitality of our region and ensures that Jacksonville’s port will continue to create quality employment for future generations.”

And St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman provided News4Jax the statement below:

"We are obviously very disappointed, but will continue our efforts to fortify the St. Johns from the harmful impacts of the deep dredge.

"This ruling does nothing to change the fact the dredging will cause more saltwater intrusion, destroy or damage critical wetlands and submerged vegetation, and increase water levels and storm surge in the river.

"Decades of dredging the St. Johns has already resulted in higher water levels and storm surge in our river, accelerating and intensifying the impacts of sea level rise and climate change. With climate scientists predicting wetter, more intense storms, low-lying communities like ours are at even greater risk.

"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects that deepening the river from 40ft to 47ft will further increase water levels during a 100-year storm by up to 8.4 inches in some areas and increase water levels during smaller, ‘high frequency’ storms by up to 12%. This will drive saltwater further up river and make us even more vulnerable to flooding and future storms.

"Saltwater intrusion will 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 Ortega River. Critical habitat for fisheries and pollution filters for our river will be lost in the process.

"We knew heading into this that the odds were stacked against us. The burden of proof weighs heavy and law provides wide latitude to the Army Corps in these type of legal matters. But we also knew that we had sound legal arguments and an experienced legal team, legitimate scientific concerns regarding the shortcomings of the Corps’ analysis (many of which were shared by the independent peer review experts and local scientists), and the best interests of the river in mind.

"While this definitely stings, our efforts have certainly not been in vain — and we will continue our efforts to make our river more resilient. Through our advocacy work, much more post-project monitoring and data will now be collected that can be used to identify potential impacts, better understand the river and hold regulatory agencies accountable. We have also led the way regarding the impact of rising waters in the river and the need for resiliency and mitigation. As a result, there is strong public support to create a more resilient community and to protect our river. The City of Jacksonville is currently developing strategies to address rising waters, and there is still an opportunity to secure funding for mitigation.

“Our river depends on us as citizens to secure holistic solutions to offset the impacts of the deep dredge, sea level rise and Central Florida’s thirst for more water. We will not give up. Future generations are depending on us.”