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Posted 5/2/2014

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By Susan J. Jackson

Jason Harrah, Jacksonville Harbor project manager and Paul Stodola, lead biologist, stood tall in front of the principal, six teachers and 50 ten- and 11-year olds.  If they were nervous, no one could tell.    

Mayport Elementary Coastal Sciences Academy fifth graders are studying the Jax Port “dredging debate” and recently invited the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District to present its case. The kindergarten through fifth grade academy teaches students the importance of preserving habitats and ecosystems through resources conservation.   

When science teacher Lori Crafton asked for a speaker from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, she said the students already knew a lot about the project and its impacts.  “We have had field trips to Jacksonville University, and heard the [St. Johns Riverkeeper’s and JaxPort’s] sides of the issue. We also had Dr. [Quincy] Gibson, from University of North Florida, come to speak at our school,” Crafton said.  

“So much of our research has been from secondary source information.  It would be an invaluable piece to their study to hear directly from the group that’s working on the project,” Crafton said.  After hearing the Army Corps of Engineers’ side, she explained, the students would write argumentative essays and participate in a debate. “We’re really excited about the visit,” she said. 

So were Harrah and Stodola. Harrah led the presentation with highlights of Army Corps of Engineers’ contributions to the nation’s history, Jacksonville District’s missions, and the district’s nearly twelve-decade-long relationship with the port and St. Johns River. 

He then said his “boss’s boss’s boss’s boss” (President Obama) directed Harrah’s boss to get the Jacksonville Harbor study and recommended plan accomplished no later than April 2014. “The BIG Boss wanted to invigorate the economy with new jobs and prepare the nation’s ports for the next generation of ships,” Harrah said. This seemed to impress the students and teachers, and there were many thoughtful expressions around the room.

When Harrah pulled money from his pocket and asked for someone from the audience, everyone seemed to lean forward. He asked the students if they gave him a dollar and he gave them back $2.70, would they turn down a deal that could make them some money? A few students raised their hands, which surprised Harrah a bit (knowing his own fifth grader, Emma, would have taken the money).  Using a slide with photos and graphics depicting the evolution of container ships, he explained the cost to benefit ratio to the nation and local economies in the ability to ship larger volumes of goods faster and more efficiently.

Harrah pulled out his personal iPad, and asked the students if they would rather pay $700 for an iPad, or $400-500 dollars for an iPad. “That’s the difference, when you can ship larger volumes – lower shipping costs translate to lower product costs,” he said.  By investing in the deepening project, Florida and the nation will benefit for decades to come. 

Harrah then showed the students a map of the mouth of the river and described the conditions there.  When he spoke about the Mayport Naval Base and their navigation requirements, the students’ paid especially close attention – after all, that was only several miles up the road and this is a “Navy Proud” community.  Harrah led them along the river, describing various locations like Mile Point, where the Corps is working to make a cross-current issue safer for navigation, and the project highlights on the waterway.

Stodola then introduced himself to the students. “When I was your age, my favorite hobby was catching and keeping snakes, to the great dismay of my mother,” he began.  Many of the boys understood and laughed in agreement.  In college, Stodola studied fisheries science. Upon graduation, he served in the Peace Corps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Africa, where he taught aquaculture. Much to the delight of the students, he described his long ago job working as an elephant keeper. He also explained that he has worked as a government biologist for 25 years, where he has applied his knowledge to projects such as Jacksonville Harbor. His passion and commitment to wildlife and the natural environment seemed to strike an instant rapport with students.

Stodola presented information on how the deepening will affect the environment, including salinity, blasting and dredging impacts, and how the Army Corps of Engineers can predict outcomes through data collection and modeling. He asked the group if they knew what salinity meant and nearly everyone raised a hand, and one student gave the definition.

“I knew right away they were a savvy group, and they would ‘get it’ when I talked about thresholds and modeling predictions,” Stodola later said.   

Using modeling examples of the river and its tributaries, Stodola discussed salinity impacts to submerged aquatic vegetation, wetlands and fish. He provided statistics and explained that the changes in salinity caused by the deepening are small in the estuary, which naturally differs in salinity levels due to rainfall, tide and drought. He also spoke about lands for conservation, a mitigation feature of the plan, and installation of water quality monitoring stations that would collect data before, during and after construction. 

“Now we know some areas of the river have hard bottom that we’ll likely have to blast, but let me tell you something – we’ve come a long way in the technologies that we use, which are the best in the world. We don’t have to blow up the rock bottom; we only crack it, which causes a lot less impact.  Dredging vessels these days are built better to scrape the bottom and pull up the debris,” Stodola said.     

Students and teachers alike expressed concern about the effects of dredging and blasting, and raised their hands to ask a variety of questions. Stodola responded to questions and then showed a recording of a confined blast triggered by 1,105 pounds of explosives in 16 holes.

“In confined blasting, the hole in which the explosive material is placed is capped with an inert material, such as crushed rock. The holes are placed at intervals and the explosives are tied to a single charge,” he explained.  

The room was completely silent as the recorded blast was played. Stodola looked around and smiled as students stared. The “explosion” looked very small. Hands popped up and the children leaned forward in their eagerness to ask questions. Stodola answered every question and even provided examples, which connected science or fact to species and circumstances familiar to the students.   

Stodola then explained how the Army Corps of Engineers uses a variety of monitoring activities during blasting and dredging operations to protect aquatic life. The students were keen to hear that all in-water work stops when manatees, turtles and other marine life get too close. He further explained how blasting would only occur during the winter months, when manatees are less likely to be in the St. Johns River. The class enjoyed watching videos of how night vision technology can be used to find animals at night, and how the Army Corps of Engineers may someday employ sonar to identify and track marine life underwater.

The Army Corps of Engineers anticipates minor impacts to the river estuary and marine life, Stodola concluded.

Harrah concluded the presentation by explaining project benefits and risks. Referring to people like Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison and novelist J.K. Rowlings, Harrah explained, “All these people were told ‘no’ but moved ahead and succeeded because they believed there was value in their work. To make advancements throughout history there has always been some risk.  

“We know there’s some risk,” Harrah told the students, “but we’re doing everything we can to plan well, to monitor and mitigate those risks.”

After the presentation, Harrah said he enjoyed it: “This is one of the best highlights of the job.”

Stodola agreed, saying that it’s not often they get to teach young people about what they do.  “It’s exciting to share things with them, especially the new technologies that we use and how much more we know today than [we knew] even 10 or 20 years ago,” Stodola said.

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