Budget gives river projects boost, but the jury's still out ; 'Good first step' but plan to borrow to buy water-quality credits has critics
Florida Times Union, 2014-07-20
Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown's proposal to invest millions of dollars into St. Johns River cleanup projects next year is a good start to a chronic problem that will take hundreds of millions more to fix, local river advocates say.
But lingering concerns remain about the city's future commitment to a clean river.
Chief among them is another piece of Brown's proposed budget that calls for borrowing $15 million over the next five years to purchase water-quality credits as a means to meeting state-mandated pollution reduction goals - a controversial plan that critics say amounts to nothing more than paying to take credit for work done by others.
Even some of those critics, however, say years of inactivity have left the city with little choice.
"I am frustrated and disappointed about the credit purchase," said City Councilwoman Lori Boyer . "But we're already behind the eight-ball. We should have made improvements over the last five years. We can't just snap our fingers and have improvement."
Brown's office says it recognizes river cleanup will be a long- term process and that it's committed to increasing the city's investment.
"The river supports our ecosystem," Brown said last week during his budget address. "It supports our tourism and recreation. It supports our economy. We will invest in preserving and protecting this vital asset in our community with projects to improve water quality."PHASING OUT TANKS
Brown's 2014-15 budget would boost spending on efforts to phase out septic tanks near the river - a major contributor to pollution - from $2 million this year to $3 million , and pump $5 million into other stormwater projects to enhance water quality.
"It's a good first step," said Mark Middlebrook , executive director of the St. Johns River Alliance . "It is a big problem, and it's something that's going to be with the city for quite a while."
In addition to the money for next year, Brown's budget proposes another $12 million in future capital funds for septic tank removal through 2019 and $12.5 for stormwater projects.
City Councilman Greg Anderson , who advocated for the extra septic- tank money, said he hopes to ramp up the amount spent on that work in future budgets. An effective cleanup plan should include more than purchasing credits, he said.
"Sometimes you have to do it one bite at a time," he said. "I would like to see more emphasis placed on making sure the St. Johns River is protected for us now and for our future."
For years, the city has struggled to meet a pledge to remove 117,000 pounds of nitrogen in the river by 2015 and double that amount by 2023. Nitrogen is among the nutrients that feed algae eruptions, which can kill fish.
After a warning from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection last year, the city submitted a plan to meet those goals. It relies heavily, to the tune of about 77 percent, on using water- quality credits to meet those goals rather than hard construction projects.BUYING CREDITS
Purchasing credits is a cheaper way to meet the reduction goals than construction - removing all the tens of thousands of septic tanks along the river has been estimated to cost about $300 million - but it will still cost millions of dollars that river advocates would rather see invested in projects that reduce pollutants.
"We are pleased the mayor is budgeting and putting money into water quality improvement projects, but the devil is in the details," said St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman.
Jacksonville plans to buy the bulk, if not all, of its credits for the 2015 deadline from JEA, which has exceeded its pollution- reduction goals under the 2008 pledge it took along with the city and other local governments along the river.
JEA has priced one credit at $56,347 per ton for nine years. If the city were to buy all the credits it needed for the 2015 deadline from JEA, that would cost $2.5 million per year for nine years, or about $22.5 million total. In addition to the $15 million Brown has proposed borrowing through 2019, his capital projects list proposes another $9 million in the five years beyond.
"Those are dollars that could be used for nutrient reduction," Rinaman said.
The Office of General Counsel is in the process of drafting a contract for the credit transaction.
The money would compensate JEA for extra work the utility would have to undertake to meet a more stringent pollution limit since it sold its extra credits. Bud Para , JEA's chief public affairs officer, said money paid for the credits would go into an environmental fund specifically for water and wastewater projects. That's where, supporters say, water-quality credits can benefit the river's health.NOT ALL SWAYED
But that argument has not swayed some.
In May, a panel chaired by Boyer that conducted a sweeping review of the city's consolidated government backed a proposal to outlaw using public money to purchase credits for past water-quality enhancements. That proposal will be part of the panel's final report, due sometime this summer.
At this point, though, Boyer said the city has little choice to meet its 2015 reduction goals after years of delays.
Middlebrook said he hopes the cleanup funding will survive the budgeting process because water quality will only become worse if left unchecked.
"This has been coming for at least 20 years, and the city has known it was going to have to deal with stormwater issues," he said. "Oftentimes, when we go through a recession like we've gone through, an awful lot of environmental stuff gets left behind. But the problem continues to get worse." Nate Monroe : (904) 359-4289