Construction of groins for Lido Renourishment Project would be prohibited during sea turtle nesting season, U.S. Fish and Wildlife says

Biological Opinion lays out series of stipulations to protect wildlife

A loggerhead turtle nests on a Mote Marine-monitored beach in 2016. Image courtesy Mote Marine

With the focus having been put on legal challenges over the past couple of months, a Biological Opinion the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) issued on the plans for the Lido Renourishment Project figuratively “flew under the radar,” The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

Yet, that opinion — issued on Dec. 29, 2016 — will have substantial bearing on the timing of part of the joint initiative of the City of Sarasota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), if it is allowed to proceed.

Because of concerns of the effects on sea turtles of the construction of the two proposed groins on Lido Beach, the USFWS has directed, “No construction is authorized during the main part of the sea turtle nesting season (May 1 through October 31).”

However, work can take place during both daylight and nighttime hours from Nov. 11 through April 30, the opinion says. “If the [USACE or the City of Sarasota] chooses to begin construction early (November 1), construction will only be authorized during daylight hours up [to] and through November 11, to avoid encountering nesting females and emerging hatchling sea turtles,” the document continues.

In response to a question about those stipulations, Amanda Parker, a spokeswoman for the USACE at its Jacksonville District Office, wrote, “USACE will account for this in the project schedule.”

Moreover, if at any time the groins begin “to disintegrate, all debris and structural material must be removed from the nesting beach area and deposited off site immediately upon coordination with the [USFWS],” the document adds.

A graphic shows the proposed placement of two groins on South Lido Key. Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Additionally, the USACE or the City of Sarasota will have to “submit a Groin Maintenance Plan to describe the activities that will be conducted for the life of the Project to address any obstruction by the groins on the natural sand transfer updrift and downdrift of the nesting beach,” the document notes, and the plan “must also include physical and biological criteria to determine if the groins are effective as proposed.”

The document states, “The groins must be removed if it is determined [they are not] effective and/or causing a significant adverse impact to the beach and dune system as outlined in the Groin Maintenance Plan.”

In her comments to the News Leader, USACE spokeswoman Parker wrote, “The groin maintenance plan required by the USFWS [Biological Opinion] is similar to the monitoring and adaptive management strategies that we proposed as part of our coordination with the [Florida Department of Environmental Protection]. We intend to conduct extensive monitoring of the project to ensure that it is performing as expected, and we will make appropriate adjustments as required (including to the groins) to ensure that it continues to be an effective project through its 50-year lifespan.”

In September 2013, when then-Project Manager Milan Mora of the USACE unveiled the plans for the Lido Renourishment Project, he proposed three groins be built on South Lido Key in an effort to keep the new sand in place between subsequent renourishments over the 50-year life of the initiative. (The Florida Department of Environmental Protection permit would be good for only 15 years, the state agency has reported in documents.)

However, when the USACE and the city submitted their permit application to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) in March 2015, the plan had reduced the groins to two.

A graphic shows the proposed location of two groins on Lido Key to hold sand in place between renourishments. Image courtesy State of Florida

The Biological Opinion points out that one groin would be 170 feet long; the other, 345 feet. They collectively would encompass 0.44 acres. Both would be 9 feet wide.

Most of the construction “will be conducted primarily from the uplands,” the opinion notes. However, “some in-water work performed from a barge may be necessary due to water depths at the end of the proposed groins,” the document continues. “Some heavy equipment and boulders will be mobilized through construction access corridors,” it adds.

The sand placement is expected to take 100 days, the opinion notes, while the groin construction is anticipated to take 230 days to complete. “Some construction would likely overlap; therefore, it is expected that the entire Project will be completed in approximately 260 days.”

The Biological Opinion also says the proposed placement of new sand on about 1.6 miles of South Lido Beach, as well as the groin construction, “is likely to adversely affect” two threatened bird species: the piping plover and the red knot, though negative impacts on the endangered West Indian manatee are not expected.

Still, the USFWS indicates it believes the project ultimately will “have an overall beneficial effect on the red knot by maintaining suitable habitat” along the renourished area of the beach.

The subadult loggerhead sea turtle Grimes returns to the Gulf of Mexico after his release by Mote Marine staff at Nokomis Beach on the morning of March 13. He was rehabilitated through Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program on Ken Thompson Parkway in Sarasota. Photo courtesy of Mote Marine

Additionally, the USFWS concludes that the presence of the groins, as proposed, “is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the loggerhead, green, leatherback, hawksbill, or Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.”

For the time being, the Lido Renourishment Project is on hold because of legal action. On March 9, the Siesta Key Association (SKA) filed a complaint in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota, arguing that the City of Sarasota has failed to comply with Sarasota County’s Comprehensive Plan and the city’s own Comprehensive Plan in the proposal for replenishing sand on Lido Key. The SKA and its attorneys believe part of the areas of Big Sarasota Pass the city and the USACE propose to dredge are within Sarasota County territory and, therefore, county permission will be necessary for removing sand from those areas.

The opinion does point to research released in 2008 that says that the dredging of sand bars and shoals “can cause or worsen localized erosion by altering depth contours and changing wave refraction, potentially degrading other nearby red knot habitats indirectly because inlet dynamics exert a strong influence on the adjacent shorelines.”

A study conducted of the barrier islands of Virginia and North Carolina — whose findings were reported in 1996 — found inlet influences extending 3.4 miles to 8.1 miles “and that inlets dominate shoreline changes for up to 2.7 miles,” the opinion notes. Yet other research, dating to 2000, shows “Changing the location of dominant channels at inlets can create profound alterations to the adjacent shoreline,” the opinion adds.

More details within the directives

Encompassing 34 pages, the Biological Opinion provides other details regarding action the USACE and the city must take to minimize any negative impacts on nesting sea turtles.

“[N]o groin construction equipment may be placed on/or stored on the beach,” it says, and [g]roin construction activities must not occur in any location prior to completion of the necessary sea turtle protection measures outlined [in another section of the document],” the opinion says.

The Atkins firm’s peer review of the Lido Renourishment Project, commissioned by Sarasota County in 2015-16, shows the locations of the proposed groins on Lido Key. Images courtesy Sarasota County

Those other measures include “[d]aily early morning surveys for sea turtle nests” if any of the groin construction occurs from April 15 through April 30 and from Nov. 1 through Nov. 11, the document adds. “No groin construction activity,” it says, “may commence until completion of the sea turtle nesting survey each day.”

Furthermore, the document points out that if nests are found in an area slated for construction, those nests “must be marked and avoided until completion of the Project or nest hatching (whichever is earliest) to minimize sea turtle nest burial, crushing of eggs, or nest excavation.”

Additionally, the document says, “If any nesting turtles are sighted on the beach during daylight hours, groin construction activities must cease immediately until the turtle has returned to the water, and the sea turtle permit holder responsible for nest monitoring has marked any nest that may have been laid,” so it can be avoided.

The opinion also calls for nesting surveys to be initiated 65 days before groin construction activity commences, or by April 15, “whichever is later,” and that they must continue through the end of the project or until Sept. 7, “whichever is earlier.”

If the groins do remain in place, the opinion continues, daily nesting surveys will have to be conducted for three sea turtle nesting seasons following construction.

The Biological Opinion provides further direction in regard to the use of lighting on the beach: “Temporary lighting will be allowed if safety lighting is required at any excavated trenches that must remain on the beach at night.” However, the USFWS must review the type of lighting and approve it prior to the start of the project, the document adds.

Moreover, the opinion calls for barriers such as hay bales or silt screens “sufficient to prevent adult and hatchling sea turtles from accessing the Project site” to be installed as a buffer 100 feet around the perimeter of the construction site. “The barrier shall be placed parallel to the shore at the [Mean High Water Line], as close to the groins as feasible during the period from sunset to sunrise,” the document says.

The birds

An adult snowy plover blends in with the beach. Photo by Fran Palmeri

The USACE and the city have agreed to follow measures provided for in a USFWS Biological Opinion — which dates to 2013 — regarding the piping plovers, the document says.

As for the red knot: The Biological Opinion points out that the birds can be found on the Lido Beach for up to 10 months a year, so construction is likely to occur when the birds are present.

The activities may flush the birds from roosting or foraging habitat, the opinion continues, which would hinder their ability to “recuperate from the energy expenditure of their migration,” survive in their wintering area and/or “to build fat reserves in preparation for migration back to their breeding grounds.”

“We anticipate that in most cases birds will travel a short distance to the suitable habitat immediately north and south of the Project,” the document continues. Nonetheless, “in some cases,” it says, “fitness of [individual birds] could be lowered” as a result of the decrease in available food.

Further, the document notes, the length of time necessary for construction also might delay the recovery of the species on which the red knot preys, “due to prolonged disturbance of the benthic fauna.” The opinion points out that sand placement “temporarily reduces [the occurrence of] wrack prey species and can bury and suffocate prey species.” However, the document says, “Over time the natural wrack would be restored through normal tidal events,” but that would be anticipated to take from six months up to two years.

A red knot. Image from the Defenders of Wildlife website

“Wrack” refers to the line of debris left on a beach by the high tide. “Benthic” refers to organisms at the bottom of a body of water.

While renourishment projects are designed to replace areas of beaches lost to erosion, the Biological Opinion says, they also “may degrade habitat by altering the natural sediment composition” and lead to a decline in the number of invertebrate creatures in that habitat.

Conversely, the opinion continues, the replenishment of sand may improve “red knot foraging and roosting habitat.”