Final document continues to question U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ assertions, but a potential discrepancy has arisen regarding whether the USACE was asked for all the materials it could provide
Sarasota County staff is undertaking a thorough review of the final version of a peer review regarding the proposal by the City of Sarasota and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to dredge Big Sarasota Pass to renourish Lido Key Beach, county Coastal Resources Manager Laird Wreford told The Sarasota News Leader this week.
“We are actually very pleased with the thoroughness of the report,” he said during a Nov. 2 telephone interview.
However, a potential discrepancy has arisen over whether the consulting firm that prepared the review could have received more material from the USACE before the firm completed the document.
The review was prepared by the Atkins engineering firm under a $49,620 contract with Sarasota County. Just as the draft of the document did, the report maintains that the analysis and modeling the USACE used “lack the supporting documentation necessary to confidently accept the conclusions.”
The recurring theme in the report is that the USACE may have completed sufficient research to determine that no negative impacts, or minimal effects, would result from the dredging of Big Pass, Wreford said. “But the point [Atkins team members] make is they’re not seeing or finding all the analysis” to support that view, he added.
Nonetheless, the Executive Summary of the peer review says, “The County may want to consider support of an intermediate step in the implementation of the project as long as a long-term project is further studied.”
The latest information the USACE provided to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) — as part of its application to obtain a permit for its plans — calls for the removal of 775,000 cubic yards of sand from Big Pass for the first renourishment of Lido Key. That number was lower than the initial figure of 1.3 million cubic yards that USACE Project Manager Milan A. Mora cited in September 2013, when he first provided a public presentation of the proposed 50-year-long project.
Further, the final version of the peer review specifically continues to question the USACE’s assertion that the mining of the Big Pass ebb shoal and placement of the sand on South Lido Key will have no effect on downdrift beaches such as Siesta Public Beach. The report’s Executive Summary says Atkins expects removal of sand from the shoal “would delay (reduce) the southerly transport of some percentage of the reported natural by-passing [of sand] after dredging. The physical processes that dictate how much delay or potential impact dredging may cause [are] not described.”
During a number of public presentations before she retired from the County Commission in 2014, Commissioner Nora Patterson, a long-time Siesta Key resident, explained that the natural flow of sediment on the west coast of Florida is from north to south. The peer review, therefore, indicates that the USACE approach is counterintuitive to that natural flow of sand.
The report also notes, as the draft did, that “Atkins had concerns about the accuracy and extent of the surveys undertaken of the ebb shoal in Big Pass, because much of the data that serves as the basis for the USACE plans was collected prior to 2002. “We recommend an update to analysis shoreline change, volume change and erosion rates with more recent data,” the review adds.
In regard to the proposal for groins to be constructed on Lido Key to help hold the new sand in place, the peer review says the modeling and analysis undertaken for that part of the USACE proposal “do not document the potential for longshore currents at the groins to divert sand offshore and away from the downdrift beaches. This could impair the natural transport [of sand] to the ebb shoal at Big Sarasota Pass.” A later reference to this concern uses the phrase “starve the beaches to the south.” The review adds that the county should encourage “monitoring and evaluate impacts the groins may have on the ebb shoal and downdrift beaches before supporting additional future ebb shoal sand mining.”
The report also says Atkins suggests “that there may be alternative mining sites and configurations.” It points out that Lido Key previously has been renourished with sand from New Pass, action “consistent with the natural southerly transport [of sediment].”
USACE Project Manager Mora has explained that the plan calls for dredging operations to alternate between Big Pass and New Pass, with renourishment of Lido to take place every five years.
According to an Oct. 29 email Assistant County Attorney Mark A. Cunningham sent the county commissioners, staff planned to schedule one-on-one discussions with them “to go over the key points of the report in the near future.”
Wreford told the News Leader that he and other staff members involved in the development of the peer review are conveying their findings to administrative staff. “The main goal is to be able to update the administration as fully as we can and as soon as we can,” he said.
Asked if he could predict when staff would complete its review of the document, he added, “It’s a work in progress” that will continue “over the next few weeks.”
It will be up to the County Commission to decide whether it wants to hold a public discussion of the findings, Wreford pointed out. The contract with Atkins included the potential for such a session as part of the scope of work, he added.
A possible discrepancy
Among other facets of the peer review, the document keeps language from the September draft version noting that the county made a request to the USACE, on behalf of Atkins, “for clarification and additional information … but as of this report [was] not received.”
After the draft of the peer review was released in September, Lt. Col. Susan J. Jackson (U.S. Army Reserve), a spokeswoman in the USACE office in Jacksonville, told the News Leader that someone did contact Mora for information, and he told the caller how to reach the lead engineers for the project. In an Oct. 1 email, she added, “These engineers have not received an information request via phone or email. I checked with other project team members, and no one on the team received a request for information. I also understand that the local sponsor engineers … did not receive an information request either.”
The local engineers to whom she was referring were City of Sarasota Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw and her team, Jackson made clear.
The News Leader spoke with Jackson again this week to follow up on the fact that the statement remained in the final version of the peer review. After another check with USACE staff and other team members, Jackson responded that no further contact from anyone on behalf of Sarasota County or Atkins was recorded.
When the News Leader asked county Coastal Resources Manager Wreford about the apparent discrepancy in the report, he said he was “not entirely certain” about what had transpired, though he did confirm that county staff made an effort to initiate direct contact between Atkins and the USACE team. The reason for that, Wreford continued, was that it made sense from an efficiency standpoint for the county not to have to serve as an intermediary as the Atkins personnel handling the review posed questions to the USACE.
He also indicated that semantics might be at the root of the discrepancy, noting that the Atkins team was referring in part to the USACE decision to remove from its proposal to the FDEP any plans for a third groin on Lido. That groin possibly could have been planned for property in the county-owned Ted Sperling Park, Wreford told the County Commission in 2014.
Atkins was hired specifically to consider the potential physical impacts on Sperling Park, north Siesta Key and the Big Pass channel, as noted in the peer review’s Executive Summary.
Wreford told the News Leader his reading of the text indicated the Atkins team had not found sufficient documentation regarding the change in the plans for the groins.
He added that the language in the Executive Summary also may have been intended simply to indicate that the Atkins group did not feel the USACE had provided all the analysis and modeling to support its assertions about the lack of negative effects related to the proposed dredging. In other words, Wreford said, the Atkins team was saying to the USACE, “If you did the work, great,” but the Atkins group wanted to see it. “That was kind of the bottom line point,” Wreford added.
Further, he could not recall any time, he said, when the USACE had failed to respond to a request by county staff or Atkins personnel for specific materials. Referring to the federal agency’s project team members, he said, “They have been actually really forthcoming … [with an] open-up-the-books [attitude], so to speak.”
Writing on behalf of the board of directors of Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2), Peter van Roekens, a Siesta Key resident, provided that nonprofit organization’s overview of the document to the commissioners and Wreford via email on Nov. 1.
While his organization had noted “some positive changes from the draft to the final copy,” he wrote, the peer review has “reaffirmed our concerns about the level of science and modeling that the [USACE team] has used in reaching their conclusions.”
He continued, “Stating that there will be no negative impacts on Siesta Key based on the [USACE] modeling flies in the face of both actual experience in other inlets and previous studies. The Atkins report cites concerns about [the USACE] modeling technology, the lack of specifics to back up the conclusions reached and the relevancy of much of the data used due to its age.”
That was no surprise to the SOSS2 board members, he added, because their expert consultant, Dr. Robert Young — director and professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University in North Carolina — “had already told us about the many issues with the [USACE] models. Earlier reviews of proposals to dredge Big Pass also expressed concerns on the potential impacts to Siesta Key as well as on navigation. Examples are Peer reviews of the Inlet Management Plan (read bottom of pg. 8 & pg.9) and the peer review by Aubrey and Dolan,” van Roekens wrote.
“One thing is clear,” he continued, and that is that “removal of even a small section of Big Pass shoal without a comprehensive look at all of the factors that impact navigation and Siesta Key makes no sense. The risks of proceeding without this information are simply too great as once any dredging has occurred the damage cannot be undone and the financial stakes are too high.”
During the Oct. 6 meeting of the Siesta Key Village Association, Vice President Mark Smith affirmed his view that, regardless of what the peer review might say when it was completed, he could not support the dredging of Big Pass, given the uncertainties of the impacts on Siesta Key and on navigation in the channel. “I’m not wiling to accept that risk, and I don’t think any of us should be.”
During that same meeting, Siesta Key Association (SKA) President Michael Shay extended his appreciation to County Commissioner Al Maio, who was a guest at the meeting, as well as to the other commissioners and county staff “for going the route of the independent peer review.” Although some controversy arose over the selection of Atkins because of its history of working with the USACE on projects, Shay continued, the peer review process had proven to be working well, as indicated by the release of the draft.
On Nov. 3, Shay told the News Leader he had not had the opportunity to review the final document. The News Leader was unable to reach SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner, who has taken the lead on representing her board in regard to the Lido renourishment plan.
Jackson, the USACE spokeswoman, also told the News Leader this week that Mora, the project manager, did receive a copy of the final version of the peer review from the City of Sarasota. She offered no comment from him on the document.
The News Leader was unsuccessful in its attempt to seek a comment from City Engineer DavisShaw, as well.