A classic economic growth vs. the environment tussle is playing out in Jacksonville, and as is usual, business interests will likely prevail.
But this debate is different, in that there is no argument that this city of close to 1 million residents will be made more vulnerable to flooding from sea-level rise by a massive dredging project that will deepen the channel of the St. Johns River.
The only question is, how much more vulnerable?
This week the federal government gave the green light to $93 million for the next phase of a 13-mile deepening of the river.
The deeper river channel will allow larger cargo ships to access the city’s port, and secure more business and more jobs, port authority officials say.
A deeper river also acts like a larger fire hose to allow more water to enter the river from the sea, increasing the likelihood of flooding along a waterway that cuts through the heart of the city.
There are 1,100 miles of riverfront shoreline in Jacksonville, all of it tidal and susceptible to sea-level rise. The city suffered widespread flooding from Hurricane Irma in 2018, which awakened public concern to the city’s vulnerability to climate change.
That concern spiked again after a Princeton University geoscientist, on a Jan. 13 segment of 60 Minutes, listed Jacksonville as one of several coastal Southeastern cities that, because of sea-level rise, will experience severe flooding every year by 2050.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that the river dredge could increase water levels by about four inches.
The St. Johns Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the river, believes that estimate is too low, and is in court to force the Army Corps to do more study, according to Advocacy Director Shannon Blankinship.
The Riverkeeper is expecting a court ruling “any day,” Blankinship said. If the court agrees that additional study is required, then it’s possible steps would be required to make the river more resilient to rising sea levels.
But stopping the dredging project at this point is a steep challenge. That’s because the project, with this week’s announcement, is now more than 80 percent funded, mostly by federal and state money.
The total cost of the project is pegged at $484 million, and would deepen the river’s channel from 40 feet to 47 feet. Dredging began in 2018, with a projected completion date of 2023, according to the port authority.
Blankinship said the Riverkeeper always thought that the city’s port authority would have to ask local taxpayers to pay a significant part of the dredging cost, but with the state and federal officials paying the bulk of the cost, local opposition has been negated.
“There’s not a public official in the City of Jacksonville that’s going to turn down that level of federal money,” she said.
City Councilmember Matt Carlucci, the chairman of the city’s Special Resiliency Committee and the most vocal supporter of climate change initiatives among elected officials, last month quickly quashed any thought of stopping the river dredging.
Jacksonville needs the river dredged and the port strengthened, he said, because it needs the jobs.
An Army Corps official told Carlucci’s special committee that the Corps projects up to four feet of sea-level rise at the mouth of the St. Johns River by 2100. He also noted that the rate of rise has accelerated in recent years, and that the acceleration is expected to continue.
John Burr has more than 30 years experience as an editor and reporter in Northeast Florida, and is a member of the Jacksonville chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.