Dona Bay restoration project proposed for next round of discussions for state RESTORE Act funding

The approximately $8-million undertaking fits criteria already espoused by the Gulf Consortium of counties affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident, county staff says

A 2007 photo shows the Dona Bay Estuary. Photo courtesy Sarasota County
A 2007 photo shows the Dona Bay Estuary. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Sarasota County’s representatives working with a state group on initiatives proposed for funding from the BP Deepwater Horizon settlement will propose this month that the Dona Bay Environmental Restoration Project receive assistance.

That was the consensus of the Sarasota County commissioners during their Aug. 22 budget workshop.

Each phase of the Dona Bay project has been designed “to incrementally provide a more natural freshwater/saltwater regime in the tidal portions of Dona Bay,” according to the watershed management plan upon which the county embarked in 2002, says a report prepared by the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in 2007. The Cow Pen Canal constructed in the late 1960s redirected “a significant portion of the Myakka River watershed to Dona Bay,” the report says, and that has “dramatically increased freshwater volumes to, and decreased seasonal salinities and dependent … flora and fauna within, the estuary.” The goal also is to protect existing and future property owners in the watershed from flood damage, the report notes.

The Dona Bay watershed extends from the Venice Jetty northeast, through the center of the county east of Interstate 75, the report explains. A portion of the City of Venice lies within that area.

Matt Osterhoudt, interim director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, told the commission on Aug. 22 that the Gulf Consortium just recently let its 23 member counties know that their representatives will be asked during their Sept. 13 meeting to discuss a list of proposed projects.

Matt Osterhoudt and Laird Wreford meet with the County Commission. File photo
Matt Osterhoudt (left) and Laird Wreford meet with the County Commission. File photo

Each county is expected to receive approximately $12.7 million through the state “pot” of funds under the RESTORE Act, Osterhoudt said. That act was structured to compensate the five states and individual counties within them that were affected by the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that began in April 2010.

The Gulf Consortium members voted this summer to share equally among the counties the approximately $293 million they are expected to receive, according to a memorandum issued by the State Expenditure Plan project manager on July 25. Each county is to propose and sponsor initiatives “that meet its particular needs and priorities,” the memo continues. The final suite of projects adopted by the Consortium will be submitted to Gov. Rick Scott for review and comment. After the Consortium has received and addressed his response, the memo continues, the governor will deliver the State Expenditure Plan to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council for its review. Then, upon its approval of the plan, the memo says, “grant applications may be submitted for individual projects.”

The state funds could come in as late as 2018, Osterhoudt told the County Commission last week. “We’re not exactly sure about a timeline …”

“The project list [sought for the Sept. 13 meeting] is non-binding at this time,” he stressed. It is being requested only for discussion purposes.

Based on the County Commission’s 2012 ranking of priorities for RESTORE Act assistance, he continued, the second phase of the Dona Bay project — estimated to cost $8 million — is the one staff would recommend for submission to the Consortium. “[It] certainly meets the RESTORE eligibility criteria,” Osterhoudt pointed out, as it has more of a regional impact and would be expected to attract leveraged funding from other sources.

County Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo
County Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

Further, he noted, both the Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor estuary programs have endorsed the project.

Chair Al Maio responded, “I always lean on Commissioner [Charles] Hines” in regard to RESTORE Act decisions, as Hines is the board’s appointed delegate to the Consortium. (Laird Wreford, the county’s coastal initiatives manager, also participates in the Consortium meetings.)

Hines explained that at this point, Consortium counties fall into three categories: Some, such as Sarasota, have identified projects that could utilize funding; others have staff that can pinpoint projects but have not done so; and the final group has not been engaged at all thus far in the process.

His belief, he said — which he has reported o the board over the past several years — is that projects with wide-ranging support and demonstrated regional benefit are those most likely to gain ultimate approval for funding. “I just want us to be first in line with a quality project” to which the county already has committed funding, he added.

It also makes sense, he continued, to be able to show municipal support for an endeavor, and the City of Venice has made that clear in regard to Dona Bay.

No vote was necessary, County Administrator Tom Harmer explained; staff just wanted the board’s direction.

“I hear no objections,” Maio replied, so the Dona Bay project will be proposed for discussion.

In the meantime, county staff is proceeding with planning for the local RESTORE project, Osterhoudt noted. That pilot plan includes creation of a 0.9-mile multi-use recreational trail, replacement of two deteriorating boardwalks and habitat restoration and protection at Ted Sperling Park on South Lido Key. The county will use money from a “local pot” of RESTORE funds for that project, Wreford explained to the commission in late March.

The initiative has been estimated at $1,035,113.93, Wreford added during that presentation. Sarasota County is expected to receive $5.5 million from the BP settlement over 17 to 18 years in its local account, he noted.

Along with the county and local “pots” of money, a third is a federal account from which funds will be divvied up among the five states that suffered economic adversity as a result of the oil spill, Wreford has said.