St. Johns (Jacksonville, FL) Riverkeeper may drop EIS opposition in return for Ocklawaha River restoration

Source: Jacksonville Business Journal

Deal between business leaders, environmentalist could ease way for river deepening

Jan 11, 2015, 5:29pm EST UPDATED: Jan 12, 2015, 9:51am EST

Jensen WerleyJacksonville Business Journal

A deal between area environmentalists and local city and business leaders could remove a stumbling block affecting the deepening of the St. Johns River.
While details of the agreement will be unveiled at a meeting Monday morning, the heart of the deal would commit Jax Chamber, the Jacksonville Port Authority and city officials to find funds and obtain permission to breach the Rodman Dam and restore the Ocklawaha River — a long-sought goal of environmentalists that would add fresh water to the St. Johns River, according to the St. Johns Riverkeeper.
In turn, the Riverkeeper would agree to drop plans to challenge in federal court the environmental impact statements from the Army Corps of Engineers regarding the deepening of the St. Johns River, a project which will allow larger ships to come into the port of Jacksonville.
St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman told the Business Journal that her organization will not issue the challenge if the Ocklawaha River restoration is successful, or will drop the challenge if it was already issued. There is a limited window in which to file a challenge, and Rinaman said the group would continue with the challenge process until the dam-breaching issue is settled.
The hope is that breaching the Rodman Dam would mitigate the effects of the St. Johns River deepening.
“It will offset some of the impacts,” Rinaman said. “There are [environmental impacts] we want to keep a close eye on, but this restoration is impactful enough to serve as important mitigation.”
The deal is a good thing for both the environment and business interests, said David DeCamp, spokesman for Mayor Alvin Brown.
“It’s a win-win where the city can help the quality of the river for the entire region, and there’s a partnership that can continue to push for harbor deepening,” he said. “We’re working with the state now as necessary to do what we need to accomplish to win approval.”
Rinaman added that before the idea of the deal came up, challenging the Army Corps of Engineers environmental impact statements was the only legal method the Riverkeeper had to mitigate the project. This provides it another method of mitigation.
“Before we had one shot,” she said. “Now we have two.”
In the meantime, the Riverkeeper will go ahead following its legal options to challenge the environmental impacts of the dredging, as well as staying involved with the permitting process.
“We engage in every permitting process,” Rinaman said. “It’s our job to hold these permitting processes accountable.”
Despite the unlikely partnership, there is expected to be a fight to keep the Rodman Dam: There are staunch outdoor recreation supporters who see the Rodman Dam reservoir as a valuable bass fishing spot.
Both candidates running for John Thrasher‘s seat in the Senate — Ronald “Doc” Renuart from Ponte Vedra Beach and Travis Hutson from Elkton — have stated they support keeping the dam, according to the Florida Times-Union.
“Representative Hutson believes the Rodman Dam should remain, as it provides sports and recreation in the area, and should be preserved for that purpose for residents and tourists alike to utilize,” Hutson’s campaign said in a statement, according to the Times-Union. “He has also personally fished and boated there.”
But Florida has other recreation sites, the mayor’s office said, so getting rid of the reservoir created by the Rodman Dam shouldn’t be a deal breaker.
“At the end of the day, breaching the dam benefits not just Jacksonville but the great number of counties who enjoy the benefits for the river,” DeCamp said. “Protection and enhancing that river is impactful to much of the state and much of our region. We’ll make that case.
“We feel it’s a pretty dynamic case when you consider the benefits and enhancing the port’s capabilities.”