Funding from NOAA to be used to ‘restore vital ecological habitats’
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has awarded a $14.5-million grant to Sarasota County for the Alligator Creek Stream Restoration Project, the county has announced.
The funding will come through NOAA’s Transformational Habitat Restoration and Coastal Resilience Program, a county news release says.
The grant is one of three designated for Florida, NOAA’s website indicates. Mote Marine Laboratory has been awarded $7 million for its efforts to restore coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary; and $10.9 million will go to the Escambia County Commission and the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program to launch the Oyster Restoration Initiative in the Pensacola Bay watershed, NOAA says.
“As part of Sarasota County’s ongoing commitment to improving water quality,” a county news release says, the County Commission will consider the use of the NOAA grant “in the next few months.” Along with the commission’s current commitment of $1.4 million to the Alligator Creek Project, the release explains, the NOAA funding will allow the county, its project partners, and stakeholders to mitigate the past negative impacts of the urbanization of the Alligator Creek area “and restore vital ecological habitats.”
“The Alligator Creek Stream Restoration project is an outstanding opportunity for Sarasota County to demonstrate that stream restoration via natural channel design is feasible in Florida,” said Sarasota County Public Works Stormwater Environmental Utility Manager Amanda Boone in the release. “The restoration extends beyond the stream, restoring wetlands and upland habitats,” she continued in the release. “Fisheries are an important part of Florida’s economy, and our restoration effort is intended to bolster habitat for important fish species.”
Designated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) an aquatic preserve and Outstanding Florida Water, “Alligator Creek is an essential 11-square-mile tidal creek that serves as an urbanized drainage basin,” the release points out. The water in the creek flows into Lemon Bay.
The basin “comprises approximately 20% of the Lemon Bay Watershed,” a Sept. 28, 2021 county staff memo explained. “The creek is brackish in its lower reaches and fresh farther upstream,” the memo added.
Hydrologic changes in the 1940s, such as deep excavation and the creation of channels, “disrupted the natural water flow and reduced the creek’s connection to the floodplain and nearby wetlands,” the news release points out. This, in combination with the creek’s steep-sided banks, has caused erosion and sedimentation, leading to “degraded crucial benthic and fish habitats.”
“Benthic” refers to sea life on the bottoms of waterways — both plants and animals.
Additionally, the release says, invasive vegetation and bank erosion have affected “the vitality of marine life, birds, and native animals that rely on the ecology and salinity of Alligator Creek.”
“The Alligator Creek Stream Restoration Project involves reconfiguring approximately 42 square acres of corridor and stabilizing banks to improve water quality and fisheries habitat,” the release adds. It also will prevent further erosion, reduce nutrient and sediment pollution, restore a more natural hydrology, and provide reconnections to adjacent wetlands, the release notes.
One facet of the project will focus on removing stream barriers to increase access to low-salinity habitats, which is important for fish nurseries, the release points out. The initiative also will provide safe harbor for aquatic life during toxic red tide algal blooms, the release adds.
Habitat restoration will increase species diversity and stability, including recreational sport fish species such as red drum, snook, sheepshead, and mullet, as well as the endangered smalltooth sawfish, the release notes.
“This grant is a major success for realizing the county’s mission toward improving area water quality and creating flood resiliency,” Sarasota County Public Works Director Spencer Anderson said in the release. “We’re so grateful for the continued support from county administration and the Board of County Commissioners,” he added. “A special thank you to our project champions and supporters, including U.S. Congressman Greg Steube, the Coastal and Heartland National Estuary Partnership, the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida, the Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, and, of course, our local volunteer organizations and nearby residents,” Anderson said in the release.
Mote to play major role in project
A major component of the Alligator Creek Stream Restoration Project will be Mote Marine Laboratory’s monitoring and sampling of key fish species, such as snook, tarpon, and red drum, in addition to Mote’s providing expertise in regard to the design for improving fish habitats, the release adds. “Mote began identifying and counting these species in the stream in 2021 to gather baseline data before the project’s commencement,” the release points out. Mote will continue to assess the effects of the stream restoration on fish health by pursuing monitoring before, during, and after construction, the release continues.
“Mote is thrilled to apply our scientifically driven monitoring and sampling techniques to assist in the restoration of Alligator Creek, and we’re looking forward to these efforts resulting in a positive response in the fish communities and ecosystem function within the creek,” said Nate Brennan, Mote’s Alligator Creek restoration project manager, in the release.
“Tidal creeks host a nexus of ecological interactions involving water chemistry, nutrient assimilation, and sediment dynamics,” he added in the release. Those creeks “are inhabited by a variety of fish species that serve as crucial water quality indicators, as they are sensitive to temperature, potential hydrogen (pH), salinity, and dissolved oxygen,” Brennan explained in the release. “The health of these fish populations is a direct indication of the creek’s water quality, which is why we’re focusing our efforts on monitoring these species.”
“Mote has implemented technology to track fish movements, growth, and survival,” the release points out. Its staff has implanted in fish “a passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag prior to releasing them back to where they were collected. Farther downstream, a solar-powered detection station picks up a signal from the PIT tag when a fish swims over the station, allowing Mote scientists to collect data to learn more about fish habitat use, directional migration patterns, and survival rates for different species, sizes, and life stages, the release adds.
“We’re proud to continue working with our partners at Sarasota County on restoring Alligator Creek,” said Ryan Schloesser, program manager of the Fisheries Ecology and Enhancement Program at Mote, in the release. “Mote’s main goal in this project is to monitor the health of the creek’s fish population before and after the restoration efforts, which will help us understand how well the creek can support fish in its current state, and we expect the data we collect to show that the restoration provided a more productive habitat for the long-term health of these fish populations.”
“In addition to the habitat restoration and fish monitoring, local communities will benefit from increased protection from flooding, reduced park maintenance costs, and enhanced recreational opportunities, which are part of the project scope,” the release points out. Buffers along lands adjacent to the approximately 3.4 miles of Alligator Creek, between U.S. 41 and Center Road — including Woodmere Park, Woodmere Park Addition, Alligator Creek Conservation Area, and three small pocket parks/preserves — “will help reduce flooding and stormwater runoff impacts,” the release notes.
On Sept. 28, 2021, the release adds, the County Commission awarded the $586,626 design contract for the project to WSP, previously Wood Environment and Infrastructure. The Tampa firm was one of five companies that bid on the work, a county Procurement document shows. Among them was the Kimley Horn firm in Sarasota.
That work is being funded in part by Sarasota County penny tax revenues, the release notes. The design is expected to be completed this fall, with construction anticipated to begin in early 2024.
Learn more about Sarasota County’s water quality initiatives at scgov.net/waterquality or call 311.