Staff to extend invitation to director of Sarasota Bay Estuary Program to make presentation about relevant issues
By consensus this week, the Sarasota County commissioners directed county staff to invite David Tomasko, director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP), to provide them a short presentation about the potential reopening of Midnight Pass between Siesta and Casey keys.
Summing up their remarks during the Feb. 21 discussion, Chair Ron Cutsinger said that after they hear from Tomasko, the commissioners can decide how they want to proceed. The two primary points of consideration indicated this week were reopening the channel between Little Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, so it is navigable; or using pipelines to facilitate the flow between the water bodies.
Commissioner Joe Neunder of Osprey, who was elected in November 2022, proposed the presentation by Tomasko. As the commission’s representative on the SBEP board, Neunder said, he believes Tomasko’s comments would add value to the board’s discussions.
Noting that he began learning about the Midnight Pass issues in June 2022, while he was campaigning for office, Neunder said the focus “is clearly the health and water quality of Little Sarasota Bay.”
Moreover, Neunder continued, “I think a tidal flush is a much more palatable, perhaps even easier, route to get permitted through our state processes.”
Growing up, he added, he saw the bumper stickers in the community that said, “Open Midnight Pass. Let It Flow.”
“That’s what I’m interested in,” Neunder added.
Commissioner Michael Moran, who was the commission’s representative on the SBEP board before Neunder, also talked of having seen the report that Tomasko wrote about Midnight Pass and Little Sarasota Bay. “He was not trying to be steering this in any way,” Moran pointed out of Tomasko. “He was throwing out the puzzle pieces for anybody to fit together.”
Moran voiced support for the invitation to Tomasko, and Cutsinger concurred.
Diving into the options
During the Feb. 21 meeting, Spencer Anderson, director of the county’s Public Works Department, presented slides to the board members to provide facts for their consideration.
First, Anderson pointed out that the reopening of Midnight Pass is part of a water quality policy priority for 2023, set by the commissioners during their December 2022 retreat.
He noted that staff has a Little Sarasota Bay Water Quality Master Plan “in the works,” and staff has submitted a $1 million request to the Florida Legislature to fund the design and permitting of a potential project involving that water body.
One of Anderson’s slides illustrated how the pass “migrated up and down the shoreline” between Siesta and Casey keys over the years before the County Commission seated in October 1983 approved the request of two property owners on Midnight Pass to relocate it to its 1950 location. Both were faced with the potential loss of their homes through erosion in the vicinity of the waterway’s opening to the Gulf.
However, as county staff explained in an Oct. 27, 2022 report that the commissioners requested on the history of Midnight Pass — and efforts to reopen it — attempts to achieve that relocation never succeeded.
“Tidal circulation is one of the biggest concerns — and lack thereof,” Anderson told the commissioners on Feb. 21.
A chart created by the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, which Anderson also showed the board members, said that the closure of the pass resulted in the percentage of water exchanged between the Gulf and Little Sarasota Bay dropping from 74% to 27%.
Nonetheless, Anderson emphasized, Little Sarasota Bay is not dead — a point that Tomasko of the SBEP also has stressed.
“It is more estuarine now,” Anderson said, serving as a nursery habitat for juvenile fish, and it does have seagrass.
It is different than it was prior to the closing of the pass, he added.
If the pass were reopened, Anderson continued, it would transition back to “a more marine environment …”
Then Anderson explained that 14 miles separates Big Sarasota Pass on the northern part of Siesta Key and Venice Inlet to the south. Midnight Pass’ closure has resulted in what Anderson called a “null zone.”
When the tide comes in, he said, the water moves 7 miles south from Big Pass and 7 miles north from Venice Inlet to reach the area where Midnight Pass was located. The water pushes against the shoreline, but no flushing takes place between Little Sarasota Bay and the Gulf, he pointed out.
Reopening Midnight Pass likely would lead to a new null zone between Midnight Pass and Big Pass, Anderson said, plus a second null zone between Midnight Pass and Venice Inlet. However, the current velocity of the tidal water in the area of Blackburn Point Road, he added, results in the scouring of the Blackburn Point Road Bridge. Thus, reducing that velocity by reopening Midnight Pass would aid in maintenance of that bridge.
Commissioner Nancy Detert voiced concern about the potential for the new null zones, saying she did not want to create more problems by solving an old one.
Anderson then explained that modeling of hydrodynamics can be used to show whether null zones would be created.
More study indicated
Following Anderson’s remarks, Commissioner Mark Smith, who lives on Siesta Key, said, “I would like to see maybe a further study of this … null zone [issue],” including modeling of the effects from the area of the Blackburn Point Road Bridge to halfway up Stickney Point Road, on the southern portion of Siesta Key.
Smith also expressed curiosity about whether a null zone exists between New Pass and Longboat Inlet. He never had heard of anyone experiencing problems with catching fish in that part of the coastline, Smith added. Conversely, he pointed out, fishing boat captains on Siesta Key have told him that while Little Sarasota Bay may not be dead, “There’s no fishing going on.” When Midnight Pass was open, Smith continued, fish were abundant in the vicinity of the waterway.
Further, Smith expressed concern about the need to maintain pipelines if the county were to take that approach to reopening Midnight Pass to the Gulf of Mexico. A stable, reopened pass, with no need for constant maintenance or dredging, he said, “would be my ideal situation.”
Chair Cutsinger told his colleagues, “Opening the pass is a wonderful concept. [A navigable waterway] would be amazing. We desperately need that [for boaters].”
“To me,” Cutsinger added, “it makes a lot of sense to get [Midnight Pass] back to its historical opening, if at all possible.”
He concurred with Smith that using pipelines to connect the Gulf to Little Sarasota Bay “would have ongoing issues, all the time.”
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis did note that, while Neunder and Cutsinger had talked about bringing in “subject matter experts” to address the pertinent issues, the commissioners were fortunate to have Anderson’s knowledge about the relevant issues. Lewis explained that when prior county commissioners were considering an attempt to reopen the pass, Anderson ended up spending four years working on the initiative.
Moreover, Lewis pointed out, if the commissioners ultimately agreed to pay for design work on reconnecting Little Sarasota Bay to the Gulf, the results would provide them a lot of information to consider.