Byline: David Bauerlein
Compared to the fanfare of a president arriving in Jacksonville on Air Force One and praising JaxPort's push to bring in bigger cargo ships, the St. Johns Riverkeeper cannot command the same national spotlight.
But while President Barack Obama spoke in general terms Thursday about the benefits of expanding Jacksonville's port, the nonprofit Riverkeeper organization was emerging as the most pointed critic of the proposal.
Last year, Obama fast-tracked the federal harbor-deepening study by 14 months as part of his "We Can't Wait" initiative.
That's moving way too fast when so much is at stake in the health of the river, St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said.
"We can wait," she said. "We can't afford to shortchange the evaluation process."
She said her group hasn't decided whether it would oppose the dredging. Too many other environmental studies of the dredging impact haven't been completed yet by the corps, so there's a lack of information to make a decision, she said.
Corps officials agree that it's a work in progress, and they want the feedback during the public comment period that runs through July 31.
"This is the most important part of the process," said Eric Bush, chief of the planning and policy division for the Jacksonville district.
But he said there's no flexibility in the deadline to finalize the report by April 2014.
"The We Can't Wait initiative is a very important driver," he said. "That's not a soft target. That's a hard target."
Dredging 13 miles of the river to a depth of 47 feet would cost an estimated $733 million, according to the draft report.
The biggest environmental concern hinges on how a deeper harbor would change the estuary's balance of saltwater and freshwater, which in turn affects the ability of vegetation and marine life to survive.
For example, increasing the amount of saltwater flowing into a deepened harbor would result in tidal flow boosting salinity miles upstream where eel grass - a vital part of the ecosystem - starts occurring in the general vicinity of the Buckman Bridge.
But the salinity increase would be less than 0.1 parts per thousand, said Paul …