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  • Writer's pictureRebecca McCandless

For the love of a river: Dredging and Florida's St. Johns River

View of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, FL. Courtesy of Rebecca McCandless.

Editor's Note: This story, two years in the making, looks at the changes over the writer's life in the St. Johns River.

We called it the Jellyfish River.

If the sunset illuminated the marshland just right, the light around us glowed.

The first time my father took me to the edge of the waters near our home, dozens of cannonball jellyfish had washed onto the slick silt shores of the St. Johns River.

I didn’t understand what their deaths meant at the time. I remember being curious, intrigued by their slumped bodies that looked like gooey globs of deflated balloons hardened by the salt air.

It happens every so often. A crowding of jellyfish that got caught in strong tides, my father said.

He’d buckled me into his white Ford F-150 and drove past tangles of pine trees, live oaks and sabal palms -- wilderness that’s been here for centuries.

We’d go during summer evenings when the smell of salt hung heavy in the air and the sky was painted gold and wind whispered through the saltmarsh cordgrass.

Our route ended in the same spot each night, a sandy shore that served as a makeshift boat ramp for nearby residents along the 310-mile river.

St. Johns begins its headwaters in Blue Cypress Lake and empties into the Atlantic Ocean east of Jacksonville, which makes our water, the area I grew up on, brackish, murky…A water I’d come to know as “my Florida.” 

Some argue that the river, which flows north like the Nile halfway across the world, is not a river at all but instead a series of connected lakes, each with their own habitat.

To a child, none of this mattered.

As my father watched over me, I splashed in the shallows for treasures that rolled within the gentle brackish waves.

I turned up oddly shaped pieces of driftwood, shiny white shells carefully inspected for hermit crabs, and the occasional lost fishing lure. Once, I happened across a Timucuan Indian spearpoint dating from so long ago I can’t begin to fathom what this area must have looked like.

With mud sticking to my bare feet, I ran back to my father, tiny hands raised high to show him what I found.

History along the shores

The St. Johns River has a long history of being manipulated and changed by humans.

As recently as the late 1800s, the river was less than 20 feet at its deepest.

Today, after more than 100 years of widening projects, the St. Johns River reaches depths up to nearly 50 feet.

“I’d say they’ve been dredging that river since before I was born,” my father said once. I was a teenager then.

I’ve grilled my father with questions – the whens and the whys and the hows.

He was the one with all the answers, and his line of work as a trucking dispatcher depends on the river. My father was born and raised here.  He’s taught me that love and respect are the same. And yet we depend on its change.

I think about this one fact: 15 million cubic yards of natural wetlands and river muck, elimination of 1.9 miles of travel and river bends, and I can see Blount Island from a sandy boat ramp my father used.

The Fulton Cutoff project, completed by 1952, created Blount Island, considered one of the largest import and export centers in the U.S.

“You know, this area isn’t part of the original river?” My father loved to ask anyone, his southern drawl down the shoreline.

JaxPort, an independent authority of the city of Jacksonville, and the shipping businesses that rely on the river find it necessary to keep combing the bottom – dredging sand and chunks of riverbed limestone – to make sure the river base created years ago remains deep enough for cargo ships to pass through.

This river is home to such iconic creatures as Florida’s manatees. But human activities are throwing their populations into crisis.

Two main types of dredging techniques callus the bottom of the river – a trailing suction hopper dredge and a clamshell dredge.

In a trailing suction hopper dredge, the hull of a ship is equipped with one or two suction pipes that end in what are called drag heads.

The drag heads navigate slowly along the riverbed, and vacuum up silt and sand from the channel.

The debris is stored in the hopper, a storage area, of the ship until it is piped off to piles of material on the banks of the river called dredging spoils.

 A clamshell dredge works similarly to claw machine games found in arcades.

What is a driver-controlled rotating cab of the dredge is mounted to a barge and buckets lowered into the water to grab and scoop the riverbed.

The “claws” of the clamshell bite down on sediment, bring it back up to the surface, and dispose of it on the deck of the barge.

Dredging the St. Johns River allows us to maintain our local economy, which protects our international port culture, David Ruderman told me as public affairs specialist of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But dredging also kills seagrasses, aquatic animals, and makes way for more and more ocean saltwater to infiltrate the river, St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman says.

As saltwater infiltrates further upstream, the salinity causes more damage to submerged grasses, the favorite of manatees, and the destruction of wetlands.

People who live in what Ruderman called “settled societies” – ones that depend on trade, travel and modern communications – must rely on dredging their waterways to keep up with the material demands of modernity. 

And the process keeps shoals, buildup of sediments along the bottom of a river, from accumulating, which would fill in the river and keep large vessels out.

Yet all the disturbance in the water stirs up the river’s natural silt and debris, which increases the turbidity levels – one measure of the water body's health.

According to a study authored by Dr. Gerard F. Pinto at Jacksonville University, the annual mean of manatee sightings have decreased from around 100 in 2016 to just above 20 in 2020.

Even the noise of the machinery impacts wild creatures’ natural navigation systems. Despite ill effects of dredging, dolphins continue to call the St. John’s home. Skinny, emaciated dolphins are becoming the standard, the Gainesville Sun reports.

The St. Johns River alone is responsible for some $2.5 billion regional value, according to the City of Jacksonville.

I remember my father’s voice: a deep timbre, so soft and low I’d often have to lean in to hear him. 

“I can’t remember a time when they’ve just left it alone,” my father said.

Courtesy of Rebecca McCandless.

Life in a disappearance 

The section of the river where I grew up is almost entirely an estuary, an area where the river meets the sea. Estuaries form unique ecosystems for myriad species – shrimp, crabs, the jellyfish that wash ashore, oyster beds, Great Blue Herons and other wading birds.

Grasses shelter small fiddler crabs that scuttle across the shore and spit up balls of sand filled with micronutrients and algae. During a summer mating season, they stand outside their burrows on the shore, waving their claws up and down. The whole ground looks like it’s moving.

The same marshlands that nurtured my childhood harbor the young of many creatures who call the river home. But these waters are changing.

Dr. Quinton White Jr. researches human impacts on Florida’s wildlife, especially on manatees and ongoing water quality issues. He is a professor of biology and marine science and serves as the executive director of the Marine Science Research Institute at Jacksonville University.

The level of saltwater encroachment into the St. Johns River has increased over the years, he said. With more saltwater moving south, animals who rely on the aquatic grasses in the river must also migrate south.

But how do we tell them that?

“One of the consequences has been that we’ve watched our submerged quality vegetation disappear,” he said.

The effect: What would have been an area along Duval County filled with 100 manatees congregating in the summertime even a decade ago is now almost devoid of the gentle giants.

“We’re seeing much fewer animals because there’s no vegetation,” he said.

And when there’s no vegetation, there are no animals. But also, no plants means nothing is cleaning up pollution, another byproduct of humanity.

“They're the kidneys of the river,” Rinaman, Riverkeeper, said of sea grasses. “When you lose those grasses, the river loses its ability to filter out pollution, which actually increases things like blue-green algae outbreaks that we see in the summertime.”

As marshes along the estuaries act as sponges, soaking up excess water, they also help mitigate flooding. But as we continue to dredge the river, we remove our natural boundaries.

In the summer of 2017, a nearly 100-year-old bronze sculpture of a winged figure on a globe in Jacksonville’s Memorial Park was marooned by waters from Hurricane Irma’s storm surge.

What looks like a nude angel standing on a pedestal in the middle of a courtyard looked as if it could dip its toes in the water after the storm, a premonition for our coastal state.

White called it a “rather significant flooding” in downtown Jacksonville.

Almost a year after the completion of the Deepening Project, the largest container ship to ever make its way through Jacksonville arrived at the port’s Blount Island Marine Terminal on Tuesday, May 9, 2023. One Stork, the bright pink colored vessel, has a length of 364 meters and can carry 14,000 TEUs (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) or containers, which is 2,000 more than the previous largest ships. It was the first of nine large container ships that will call on the port weekly.

JaxPort Chairwoman Wendy Hamilton said, “The future is here and JaxPort is equipped to meet the needs of the nation’s supply chain for generations to come.”

Eric Green, JaxPort CEO, said this endeavor “means a lot to this community. We’re talking about jobs, the economy, and an impact on the region.”

Carrying an assortment of consumer goods such as electronics, furniture, and more, this ship and others like it will support the 138,000 jobs at the port.

Tuesday, May 9 was a big day for the community, as spectators lined up along the banks of the St. Johns River to watch the magenta ship slice through its brackish waters. My father, along with our neighbors and people from surrounding neighborhoods, gathered on the sand of the Jellyfish River.

I wasn’t in Jacksonville, but my father made sure to send me pictures. Of the crowd and the ship spanning the length of 4 football fields across my screen.

“Big day at the river” his text read, “largest container ship ever.”

Green said the next step is to raise the Fulton Cut power lines to allow ships with higher masts to port in Jacksonville.

The Jacksonville City Council approved a bill in January 2023 that commits $27 million to raise the six high-voltage power lines 20 feet higher. These lines carry electricity to about half of Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) customers.

This legislation appropriates $17.5 million in commercial paper borrowing and authorizes a $12.5 million loan to the Jacksonville Port Authority. The Florida Department of Transportation has already committed $22 million to the project. The overall estimated cost is estimated between $42.5 and $45 million according to the bill, but JaxPort officials said it could reach up to $50 million. This project is expected to be completed by 2026.

JEA board member John Baker, who served as the JaxPort board chair in 2019, said “Ships are getting bigger and the dredging would literally be wasted if the lines were not raised.”

Who can I become?

My father and I reserved sunny Sundays after church for his Carolina Skiff, a V-bottom motorboat that sliced through waves and sent them spraying back onto us.

My father wanted to fish, but instead we’d stop at what was another of my favorite spots: a crescent shaped sandbank spit up by the river outside one of its tributaries.

I squatted on it, broken shells digging into my bare feet, and snagged shark teeth that rolled ashore out of the waves.

My current collection of teeth sits at more than 1,000, thin blades of tiger sharks and the bulky triangles from great whites. I collect 40 teeth for every two my father spots, a competition that defines us.

I listened for the popping sounds of oysters spitting out water, the droning of a boat’s motor approaching too closely, and the melodic clinking of small shells getting caught in the waves. I squinted in the sun for hours searching for those shiny black triangle teeth, until finally my dad called out to me to go home.

As I grow older, our trips to the river become less frequent. We occasionally take family drives down to the boat ramp and watch for the glistening of dolphin’s backs cresting over the waves and listen for the subtle puff of air from their blowholes.

I remember the sun during the golden hours as it scatters through the live oak tree leaves and soaks through the Spanish moss.

I stand there, even in memory, and can hear a melody in the rhythmic hushing of waves, the loud-belly calls of seagulls.

My father often stroked his mustache and soul-patch facial hair he’s had as long as I’ve been alive as he looked out over the water he’s taught me to love.

We were at the boat ramp, and could see the machinery and equipment that loomed and hunched in the brackish waters. Old, rusty barges filled to the brim with bedrock.

I have grown accustomed to seeing the machines parked in the waters, hearing their squeals and crashes now as I drive past construction sites.

At night, I can see their lights floating over the water, ominous indications of a civilization lingering somewhere it seems it shouldn’t be.

I stand on the banks of the St. Johns River and I wonder how I can protect it from the shrill sounds of machines

I know one day will return. 

This story was initially supported by the Florida Center for Government Accountability. A thank you, also, to environmental reporter Max Chesnes of the Tampa Bay Times.


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