Little Sarasota Bay water quality feasibility study putting emphasis on need for ‘tangible metrics’ to demonstrate success of any county initiatives

Commissioner Neunder reports on Zoom conference with representatives of federal agencies that would be involved in permitting process

This is a slide showing Midnight Pass when it was open and the area of Little Sarasota Bay (LSB) decades later. Image courtesy Sarasota Bay Estuary Program

Sarasota County staff has been conducting outreach to a number of stakeholders in an effort to get “a hold of the historical passion and nostalgia” related to Siesta Key’s Midnight Pass before it was closed in 1983, Spencer Anderson, director of the county’s Public Works Department, told the County Commission on July 9.

His remarks came during an update about the first phase of a feasibility study involving ways to improve the water quality in Little Sarasota Bay.

Before the County Commission seated in the early 1980s allowed private property owners to close Midnight Pass on the southern end of Siesta Key, the channel connected Little Sarasota Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.

Anderson explained that one of the challenges thus far in the work on the feasibility study is to define the goals to be achieved by any initiative that the county might be pursued. Staff has been focused on “tangible metrics,” he added, regarding the health of Little Sarasota Bay.

Staff’s hope, he continued, is that the engagement with the stakeholders will help with the creation of a list of initiatives to pursue.

The stakeholders listed on a slide he showed the board members were the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, the Casey Key Association, Restore Midnight Pass (formerly known as the Midnight Pass Society), Manasota 88, Sarasota Audubon, Solutions to Avoid Red Tide (START), and Sarasota Bay Watch. However, the slide noted that those were not the only stakeholders staff would approach.

In fact, Anderson continued, he might be back before the commissioners at some point to seek their suggestions about the goals.

He also pointed out that Phase 1 is “a desktop evaluation” of existing information about the past reopening efforts related to Midnight Pass and the quality of water in Little Sarasota Bay.

These are details about Phase 1 of the study, which Spencer Anderson showed the commissioners on July 9. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In September, he said, he tentatively plans to provide details to the commissioners about the Phase 1 findings. Then, if they authorize a second phase, he continued, that would deal with the specific engineering analysis of the preferred option, which ATM also would handle, he indicated.

In May, Anderson said, “We had a consultation with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection [FDEP] to get their input and give them an update [on the study, including the fact] that we’re not proceeding with anything specific.”

The FDEP “input was good,” he added.

Staff did hear confirmation, he said that the laws and state statutes that had proven challenging in past county permitting efforts related to reopening Midnight Pass had not changed. “It’s the same rule book we’re dealing with this time.”

At some point, Anderson added, staff also may ask the commissioners for action relative to seeking amendments of certain state regulations to facilitate a Little Sarasota Bay initiative.

Among other points in his July 9 presentation, Anderson noted that Gov. Ron DeSantis did approve a $500,000 appropriation for the county to pursue the Little Sarasota Bay water quality efforts.

Further, he reminded the board members that the firm Applied Technology and Management (ATM) is handling the first phase of the feasibility project, with the work’s expense estimated at $75,000. (In March, a report that Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham provided the commissioners noted that staff used what is called the county’s Professional Services Coastal Engineering Consultant Library to assign the Phase 1 work to ATM. The firm’s headquarters is in Gainesville.)

A conversation with representatives federal agencies

Commissioner Joe Neunder has championed the Little Sarasota Bay water quality efforts since he was campaigning for the District 4 seat on the board, which he won in November 2022.

After thanking Anderson for his July 9 update, Neunder also expressed his appreciation to state Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, and Sen. Ben Albritton, the Republican representing District 27 — which includes part of Lee County — for their efforts to get the $500,000 appropriation in the state’s 2025 budget bill.

Then Neunder told his colleagues and Anderson about a Zoom meeting that he and David Tomasko, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP), had conducted the previous week with representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in regard to the commission’s project involving Little Sarasota Bay.

He added that he had forwarded Tomasko’s minutes of that session to his colleagues and county administrative staff.

“I fully understand that this [water quality] project is going to have to be very well vetted [with all of the relevant permitting authorities],” Neunder continued, adding that he believes the passion regarding Midnight Pass and Little Sarasota Bay is as strong as ever.

This is a graphic showing Little Sarasota Bay in the county’s Water Atlas. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, Neunder said he believes that he made it clear during the Zoom meeting “that we’re taking our time to plan and follow the science. I think [the undertaking] is very well received with the other government agencies thus far.”

Neunder also noted that he had researched ATM, telling Anderson, “You couldn’t have picked a better organization. … They come very highly recommended.”
Commissioner Neil Rainford expressed appreciation to Gov. Ron DeSantis for approving the $500,000 appropriation for the county’s initiative, especially given the “significant budget cuts” DeSantis made through vetoes this year.

Not an effort to increase boat traffic

This week, The Sarasota News Leader was able to obtain a copy of the minutes that Tomasko of SBEP wrote about the Zoom meeting Commissioner Neunder referenced on July 9.

The minutes note that, along with one other SBEP representative and Neunder, two attendees represented U.S. Fish and Wildlife; three were with the EPA; one represented the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and one was with NOAA.

At the outset, the minutes indicate, Tomasko “provided an overview of his background and experience and a history of Midnight Pass, stating there has been no connection for 40 years. Little Sarasota Bay was closed by bulldozers, not a storm. The homeowners were granted a permit to move the pass, not close it. The pass started to migrate towards people’s homes and they got an emergency permit to move the pass. Since they were only able to close the existing pass, not keep the ‘new’ pass open, they violated the terms of their permit, and had to pay a fine.”

He further explained that he worked on a project that involved the San Jose Lagoon in Puerto Rico, which had lost its connection to San Jose Proper. He described that lagoon’s situation as similar to the one entailing Midnight Pass and Little Sarasota Bay.

This is a slide that David Tomasko showed the County Commission during an April 2023 presentation. Image courtesy Sarasota Bay Estuary Program

Then, Tomasko reported, in the 1990s, “Dr. Peter Sheng (University of Florida) created a calibrated hydrodynamic simulation model and looked at the effects of the closure of the pass [on the] water in Little Sarasota Bay,” the minutes continued. That model showed “implications for algal blooms, salinity stratification, and bottom water hypoxia. Rain events create a situation where anything on the bottom of Little Sarasota Bay will be trapped and can’t escape and will die in place due to bottom water hypoxia.”

Further, Tomasko pointed out that Sarasota County would be the entity to seek any permits related to projects involving Little Sarasota Bay.

The minutes noted that Tomasko explained that he has been engaged in the undertaking “to [serve as] an honest broker of information. Tidal restoration projects have been accomplished in other areas. This project is not to flush dirty water out of [the] Gulf of Mexico,” the minutes add. “[N]one of the open waters of Sarasota Bay are impaired for nutrients, as the water is cleaner than it has been in the past 10 to 15 years, due to investments in water quality.”

Moreover, the minutes show, Tomasko reprised part of a presentation he made to the commissioners in April 2023, when he suggested four approaches to Little Sarasota Bay: “1. Do nothing, 2. Dredge another wild pass, 3. Add a hardened jetty, which was done at Venice Inlet, 4. Add a culvert, a structure that allows water to flow back and forth, similar to what is done in some parts of the Florida Keys or Fort DeSoto [in the Tampa Bay region].” The minutes make it clear that he explained that Midnight Pass “would not be designed for boats to pass through, but to allow water to flow back and forth.”

This is a slide showing the culvert at Fort DeSoto Park, as presented by David Tomasko of the SBEP on April 11, 2023. Image courtesy Sarasota Bay Estuary Program

Then the minutes say, “Mark Sramek [who works with NOAA as a National Fishery Service fishery biologist in the Habitat Conservation Division,] reviewed the original proposal for reopening the pass in [the time frame of 2008 to 2010]. NOAA had written a strong letter of objection. He conducted onsite inspections in 2008. [During the July Zoom discussion Sramek] was not providing support nor opposition for [a] boat pass but liked the inclusion of the culvert option. NOAA would not recommend authorization if a project proposal was structured the same way as in 2008.”

Neunder voiced his preference for the culvert option, the minutes add, “but his position is to ask experts and scientists.”

Sramek committed to remaining “engaged with site inspections and [to] provide and review the best available science,” the minutes note.

Felicia Burks of the EPA said that the staff of the agency’s Region 4 office in Atlanta — which handles Florida and other Southeastern U.S. states — “was in close coordination with the SBEP, and was familiar with the topic being addressed.

“Allison Van Wyk (EPA) would look at aquatic habitat, impacts on mangroves, seagrass, wetlands, and hard bottom impacted by substantial dredging,” the minutes continue. Once those details have been established, the minutes point out, the EPA staff members “would want to ensure comparable mitigation.”

Brendan Myers of U.S. Fish and Wildlife said that that organization’s staff would look at” potential impacts on endangered species, seagrass, water quality, and critical habitat, the minutes point out. Myers mentioned green sea turtles, piping plovers, and manatees as part of that focus, along with turtle nesting.

“Would boater traffic be enhanced?” he asked, the minutes show. “If so,” the minutes add, “a revised boat facility [siting] plan might be needed, including information on dock usage, marina usage, etc. Noted that Sarasota County is engaged in manatee protection. Advises others to look at studies, design plans holistically and consider future maintenance costs and issues.”

Scott Calleson of Fish and Wildlife pointed out that studies of the potential effects on sea turtles of the reopening of Midnight Pass were not a priority in 2006, the minutes say. Fish and Wildlife’s concerns, he added, would mirror those of the staff of the National Marine Fishery Service.

Then the minutes say, “Tomasko added that a project that goes forward with the intention of increasing boating traffic will cause additional hurdles, but adding a culvert will benefit the ecosystem, and would likely increase water quality and seagrass. SBEP would back out of supporting a plan if it was similar to that which was submitted 15 years ago.”

Edgar Garcia. Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Further, the minutes continue, Edgar Garcia of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concurred that all agencies represented during the discussion should provide comments in light of the “regulations that apply. USACE staff, he added, would conduct studies regarding sand migration and dredging, “as well as future USACE maintenance permits.”

(Garcia is managing 55 projects, the minutes note.) The goal is to implement “a well-designed project that will work with limited maintenance,” the minutes say.

“Storm events will have an effect and may require additional maintenance,” Garcia added, according to the minutes. “The USACE will consider the impacts of construction and maintenance over the life of the project,” the minutes say.

Neunder assured the attendees that Sarasota County staff would submit a permit application “with all required data to simply [the] process”; that action would take place after all the necessary research had been undertaken, the minutes point out.