FDEP staff awaiting two sets of materials before beginning 15-day ‘completeness review’ as required by state permit
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers team in charge of the Lido Key Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project will stick to its announced schedule of “on or about July 6” for the dredging of Big Sarasota Pass to get underway, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.
After hearing of the postponement of the Sarasota Powerboat Grand Prix — which had been set for late June off Lido Key Beach — David Ruderman, a spokesman for the USACE at its Jacksonville District Office, indicated to the News Leader the potential of the USACE’s moving up the dredging timeline. However, Ruderman told the News Leader in a May 11 email that “the Corps and contractor are sticking to the originally projected start date …”
The reason for staying with the early July time frame, Ruderman explained, is a requirement in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) project permit regarding sea turtle nest monitoring.
The permit — issued in June 2018 to the USACE and the City of Sarasota — says, “Sand placement activities are authorized to occur on the nesting beach (seaward of existing coastal armoring structures or the dune crest) during the marine turtle nesting season,” provided that “[d]aily marine turtle nesting surveys shall be initiated 65 days prior to sand placement activities or by April 15, whichever is later.”
Sea turtle nesting season runs from May 1 through Oct. 31 each year.
The USACE plans to remove up to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Pass and then place 710,000 cubic yards on about 1.56 miles of Lido Beach. The remainder of the sediment is expected to be lost in the dredging process, based on documents among the permitting application materials submitted to FDEP.
This week, FDEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller told the News Leader in an email that department staff was awaiting two key sets of unrelated information before it begins its 15-day completeness review of all pre-construction submittals. However, she indicated in her May 18 email that those missing pieces were not a concern, noting, in line with Ruderman’s information, that “Construction is not expected to commence until early July, at the soonest.”
As of May 18, Miller wrote, FDEP had yet to receive the necessary details regarding turbidity monitoring or information about the mitigation of seagrass that may be destroyed during the dredging.
On April 22, leaders of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) sent a letter to FDEP, pointing to “12 areas of significant missing documentation or lack of compliance with the permit” as of that date.
Among those the SKA cited was Section 5(c) of the Specific Conditions segment of the permit, which says the following:
“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 …”
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.
“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 seagrass mitigation proposal
In regard to the second FDEP requirement that was unfulfilled as of May 18: The Sarasota City Commission voted unanimously on July 15, 2019 to approve an agreement with the Manatee County Commission that allows the city to use a portion of that county’s Perico Preserve for the planting of new seagrass.
City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw said at the time that she anticipated the mitigation area would need to cover up to 3.2 acres, as compensation for the 0.68 acres of seagrass that the USACE expected would be destroyed in Big Pass.
DavisShaw added that the city’s projected expense would be $1,124,839.84.
The USACE did end up eliminating approximately one-third of Borrow Area — or “Cut” — C in Big Pass in its solicitation for the Lido project. One reason for that decision, Trisston Brown, chief of the USACE’s Florida Projects Section in Jacksonville,told the News Leader, was “[S]parse seagrasses exist adjacent to the dredge area with the potential to be impacted …”
The SKA and the Suncoast Waterkeeper both opposed the city’s mitigation plan.
Justin Bloom, founder of the Suncoast Waterkeeper, urged the city commissioners to “look at the larger picture of deteriorating water quality in our region,” adding that a decline in seagrass populations was documented in community waters from 2016 to 2018. Bloom called that a “significant concern.”
SKA leaders have pointed to a Sarasota County policy — contained in Article XX of the County Code — that calls for any mitigation of seagrass destroyed in Sarasota County to be undertaken in Sarasota County.
When city commissioners asked DavisShaw about that policy last July, she said that Pansy Bayou was proposed as a mitigation site; it is located between City Island and Lido Key. However, she added, Mote Marine Laboratory staff asked that the bayou be excluded from consideration because it provides protection for small fish.
Additionally, R. Grant Gilmore Jr., senior scientist with Estuarine, Coastal and Ocean Science Inc. in Vero Beach, provided the News Leader details about research papers on which he relied in offering concerns about the Perico Preserve plan. (Gilmore had sent the information to Siesta resident and SKA member Michael Holderness, who shared it with the City Commission in July 2019.)
The following were among Gilmore’s statements:
- “The Perico seagrass is located at the mouth of a large freshwater river, the Manatee River, so [it] is influenced by freshwater flows from that river. The Sarasota Big Pass seagrass is located at a large opening to the Gulf of Mexico, a major saline ecosystem … These widely differing salinity environments mean that even though the seagrass species may be the same, the creatures that associate with these two different ecosystems will not be the same. It is like stating that apples and oranges are the same fruit. Research over the past 50 years has demonstrated otherwise. For example, in 2018 we captured a Gag Grouper, Mycteroperca microlepis, juvenile in the Sarasota Big Pass seagrass. This species supports the valuable Florida grouper fisheries. Gag grouper would not use the lower salinity Perico mitigation seagrass site.”
- “Perico and Big Pass seagrass meadows play a different role in supporting fisheries as high salinity pass seagrass at Sarasota Big Pass will support open Gulf [of Mexico] fisheries while lower salinity Perico wetland seagrass will support euryhaline lower salinity fish communities.
- “Spotted Seatrout do not spawn adjacent to the Perico site, but do spawn within Sarasota Big Pass. Spotted Seatrout spawn at the northwest mouth of Tampa Bay, avoiding the lower salinity waters at the mouth of the Manatee River.”
Gilmore testified as an expert witness for the SKA and another Siesta-based nonprofit, Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2), during a December 2017 Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) proceeding. The SKA and SOSS2 provided evidence and testimony in challenging FDEP’s December 2016 proposal to issue the permit for the Lido project.
Ultimately, the administrative law judge offered two recommendations for modifications of the permit on the basis of the DOAH hearing; FDEP incorporated those into the final permit.
Regardless of the progress made with the FDEP permitting requirements for the Lido initiative, both the SKA and SOSS2 remain engaged in litigation in an effort to prevent the removal of any sand from Big Pass, which never has been dredged.