Army Corps of Engineers pinpoints July 6 as date for dredging to begin in Big Pass as a Siesta Key nonprofit contends many requirements of the FDEP project permit remain unfulfilled

USACE spokesman and City of Sarasota engineer say permit compliance work is underway

Editor’s note: The first version of this article contained an outdated USACE engineering drawing for the project, noted as C-04. On the afternoon of May 1, the correct version of that drawing was substituted.

Big Pass separates Lido Key from Siesta Key and provides an outlet to the Gulf of Mexico. File photo

The dredging of Big Sarasota Pass for the renourishment of Lido Key Beach “is scheduled to begin on or about July 6,” a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) told The Sarasota News Leader this week.

“[I]n Corps of Engineers time [that] is pretty soon,” David J. Ruderman wrote in an April 28 email.

In response to a News Leader request for an update on the timeline, Ruderman added, “The Corps project delivery team has been coordinating with the contractor, the [City of Sarasota], FWC [the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] and FDEP [the Florida Department of Environmental Protection], and with the turtle monitor, and it’s coming along without any issues,” Ruderman wrote of the project.

During the April 20 Sarasota City Commission meeting, City Manager Tom Barwin reported that city staff expected the dredging of the pass to begin in late spring or early summer.

Plans call for up to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand to be removed from two borrow areas in the pass, so 710,000 cubic yards can be placed on Lido Key Beach.

As a result of the April 24 News Leader article, Siesta Key Association (SKA) directors sent an email on April 28 to the News Leader, as well as Assistant Sarasota County Administrator Brad Johnson, who oversees the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), as well as Nicole Rissler, director of PRNR, and Kay Mathers, district aide to state Rep. Margaret Good of Siesta Key. The SKA leaders pointed out that a number of requirements in the FDEP permit for the Lido project remain to be fulfilled.

Siesta Key Association Directors (from left) Robert Luckner, Erin Kreis, Tom Surprise and Natalie Gutwein prepare for the start of the Feb. 6 meeting at St. Boniface Episcopal Church. Rachel Hackney photo

A revised state permit, issued on April 10, “does not authorize construction until the USACE and [the City of Sarasota] have submitted a complete record of their required construction documents and allowed the FDEP [15 days] to review them and state any exceptions or noted incompleteness. SKA has confirmed … with FDEP that the record is incomplete and thus FDEP has not started the ’15-day review clock,’” the email said.

Further, the SKA has “sent FDEP a letter noting 12 areas of significant missing documentation or lack of compliance with the permit,” the email added.

It was signed by Catherine Luckner, president of the SKA, and her husband, Robert, who is an SKA director.

The News Leader sent an inquiry to FDEP about the Luckners’ concerns, but it had not received any response from the state department prior to its deadline for this publication.

Robert Luckner did forward to the News Leader a copy of an email he and Catherine Luckner received on the afternoon of April 28 from Gregory W. Garis, administrator of FDEP’s Beaches, Inlets, and Ports Program. “We have not received all pre-construction submittals and thus have not begun our 15-day review period,” Garis wrote.

Gregory Garis. File photo

The Beaches, Inlets, and Ports Program is the FDEP division through which the USACE and the City of Sarasota worked to obtain the Joint Coastal Permit for the Lido Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project

When the News Leader contacted City Engineer Alexandra DavisShaw about the SKA comments regarding the permit for the Lido project, she responded in an April 28 email: “The US Army Corps of Engineers has issued a Notice to Proceed with the Project to the contractor. This does require that the contractor adhere to the permit requirements.” However, she continued, “There are elements of the permit that are completed once the contractor is on board. They are working on these elements that are required before they actually start the construction work.”

The contractor, as the News Leader has reported, is Cottrell Contracting Co. of Chesapeake, Va. The USACE awarded it the bid on March 19.

Ruderman of the USACE told the News Leader that the USACE gave Cottrell the Notice to Proceed on April 16. That notice is considered the formal go-ahead for the initiative to begin.

Specific allegations

In an April 22 letter to Garis of FDEP, SKA leaders made their points about the issues they say have yet to be resolved before the Lido initiative can get underway.

Among those, the letter notes, “FDEP removed a Notice to Proceed from Specific Condition 5 [in the permit]. FDEP should resolve the confusing use of ‘Notice to Proceed’ thirty-seven times [in the specififcatoins that the USACE issued as part of its December 2019 solicitation for bids the Lido project]. USACE has informed the public that they issued a ‘notice to proceed’ on 4/16/2020 which requires the contractor to begin construction within 75 days.”

The USACE’s December 2019 solicitation package said, “The Contractor shall be required to (a) commence work under this contract within 75 calendar days after the date the Contractor receives the notice to proceed, (b) prosecute the work diligently, and (c) complete the entire work ready for use no later than 1 May 2021 after the Contractor receives the notice to proceed. The time stated for completion shall include final cleanup of the premises.”

This is language in the USACE’s December 2019 solicitation package regarding the schedule after the Notice to Proceed has been issued. Image courtesy USACE

Ruderman, the USACE spokesman in Jacksonville, told the News Leader earlier this month that, because the December 2016 Biological Opinion the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued for the project prohibits construction of two groins on South Lido during sea-turtle nesting season, that work most likely would begin in January 2021 and be completed in May 2021.

Referring to the April 10 revised permit, the SKA also contends that FDEP should obtain and place in the project record the contractor’s qualifications for the monitoring of turbidity, as required by Specific Conditions Sections 5(c) and (d).

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) article defines turbidity as “an optical quality of light transmission through a fluid containing sediment particles …”

That article also notes that total suspended sediment (TSS) levels “are shown to have adverse effects on benthic communities” when they exceed 390 milligrams per liter, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a 1986 report.

This is a microphotograph of typical benthic animals. Image taken by G. Carter in April 2000. Photo courtesy of NOAA and the United States Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

“Coastal Benthic Communities,” the EPA explains in one of its Report on the Environment articles, “are largely composed of macroinvertebrates, such as annelids, mollusks, and crustaceans. These organisms inhabit the bottom substrates of estuaries and play a vital role in maintaining sediment and water quality. They also are an important food source for bottom-feeding fish, invertebrates, and birds. Communities of benthic organisms are important indicators of environmental stress because they are particularly sensitive to pollutant exposure (Holland et al., 1987). This sensitivity arises from the close relationship between benthic organisms and sediments — which can accumulate environmental contaminants over time — and the fact that these organisms are relatively immobile, which means they receive prolonged exposure to contaminants in their immediate habitat (Sanders et al., 1980; Nixon et al., 1986).”

The sections of the FDEP Lido permit that the SKA referenced in regard to turbidity monitoring say the following:

“c. Turbidity monitoring qualifications. Documentation that the person(s) who will be conducting the turbidity monitoring meets the following requirements:

“i. Is independent of both the design contractor and the construction contractor(s);

“ii. Has formal training in water quality monitoring;

“iii. Has professional experience in monitoring turbidity for coastal construction projects;

“d. A Scope of Work for the turbidity monitoring to ensure that the right equipment is available to conduct the monitoring correctly at any location, and under any conditions if turbidity sampling becomes necessary.”

The SKA letter also points to the need for FDEP to “obtain and place in the public record contractor qualifications for biological monitoring (shore birds, manatee),” as required by Specific Condition 5.g. of the permit. That section says,

“Monitoring Staff Qualifications. All biological monitoring (as specified in the Mitigation and Monitoring Plan, approved December 2016) shall be conducted by experienced biologists with expertise in surveying seagrass. To ensure that individuals conducting monitoring have appropriate qualifications, documentation demonstrating expertise/experience shall be provided.”

Among other issues, the SKA refers to USACE drawings contained in the December 2019 USACE solicitation package.

The SKA notes that Drawing C-04, which it attached to the letter to Garis, “proposes to adjust the ‘landward line of beach fill to be field determined.’” (In other words, the USACE project superintendent on site would work with the contractor on that line as the sand placement is underway.) “The area is near R-43.5,” the letter adds, referring to a shoreline monument system used to denote specific geographic locations. “This area is outside of the approved beach fill template” shown in FDEP’s permit sketches, the SKA contends. “The area is approximately 40,000 square feet in size.”

This is Drawing C-04 included in a Feb. 14 addendum to the solicitation package the USACE published in December 2019 for the Lido Key Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project. Image courtesy USACE

Based on the drawing and personal observation,” the letter adds, the Luckners have found that area to contain dunes and dune grass. “It is also on Sarasota County Park property for which Permittees have no land use approval and contract from Sarasota County. There is also no Dune Restoration Plan for this area. FDEP should not allow this proposed non-permitted construction without review and justification of the destruction of this dune area and [FDEP should] require a dune restoration plan,” the letter says.

The SKA remains in litigation against the City of Sarasota over the Lido project, contending that the city has not taken all the necessary steps according to city and county policies and regulations. Among those, the SKA contends that the city needs to obtain permission from Sarasota County to remove sand from Big Pass.

The SKA filed an appeal with the Second District Court of Appeal after losing its case last year in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.

Additionally, the nonprofit Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2) remains in litigation against the USACE in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, in Tampa. SOSS2 leaders have declined to comment for now on the latest developments in the Big Pass dredging plans.