A Manatee County staff letter provides more details about the proposed seagrass mitigation plan in Perico Preserve
The reason the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) this month agreed to extend by 30 days a decision on its next step in the Lido Renourishment Project permit process was because staff wanted more time to review a specific document and it sought additional information about the proposed seagrass mitigation plan, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.
Therefore, the City of Sarasota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) issued a waiver on Sept. 1 that set an Oct. 1 deadline for FDEP to decide whether to release a third Request for Additional Information (RAI) or to conclude that it has all the material it needs about the application, Sarasota City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw told the News Leader this week.
In a Sept. 14 email response to the News Leader, DavisShaw wrote that that was her understanding of the situation, adding, “but obviously I can’t really speak for [FDEP staff].”
Just before state offices were to close at noon on Sept. 1 in advance of Hurricane Hermine’s expected strike near Tallahassee, FDEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller emailed the News Leader a copy of the waiver FDEP issued with the Oct. 1 date. Replying to a request for more details this week, Miller wrote in a Sept. 15 email, “I have no additional updates at this time.”
In June, Sarasota city leaders — including City Manager Tom Barwin — talked about their expectation that FDEP would issue a permit this fall to the city and the USACE to allow the dredging of Big Sarasota Pass to renourish Lido Key. The USACE did not obtain funding through Congress this year for the estimated $19-million project, USACE spokeswomen have told the News Leader. However, spokeswoman Susan J. Jackson in the Jacksonville District Office has said that having the permit in hand would make it easier to obtain the money.
The USACE has committed to picking up about 62 percent of the expense, with the rest of the funding divided evenly between a state grant and Sarasota County Tourist Development Tax revenue set aside for city renourishment projects.
The city’s proposed Capital Improvement Program for 2017-2021 — discussed during budget workshops in June and provided in advance of the city’s Sept. 12 public hearings on the budget — lists $3,610,000 in tourist tax revenue; $3,610,000 in state grant funds; and $11,780,000 in the form of a federal grant for the renourishment of Lido Key Beach.
The timeline and key events
Late on Aug. 1, the USACE submitted its response to FDEP’s second request for additional information (RAI2) on the proposed Lido project. Under its rules of procedure, FDEP had 30 days to respond. Within eight days of the Sept. 1 deadline for that action, two key events occurred.
First, the Sarasota County Commission voted unanimously on Aug. 23 to ask the USACE to withdraw its 2015 Finding of No Significant Impact regarding the Lido Renourishment Project and, instead, to pursue an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) with a much more thorough review of potential negative consequences of dredging Big Pass, as well as alternatives to that plan. In a July 14 letter to the commission, the Siesta Key Association (SKA) asked the board to call for an EIS. The communication was transmitted to the county just before the commissioners started their traditional summer recess.
Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2), another nonprofit organization opposing the dredging of Big Pass, had called for an EIS more than a year earlier.
In addition to its request to the USACE, the County Commission sent a letter to FDEP, noting that the documents the USACE submitted to the state department on Aug. 1 called for a staging area in the county’s Ted Sperling Park on the southernmost point of Lido Key. Commission Chair Al Maio wrote, “Neither the [USACE] nor City of Sarasota has contacted the County to seek authorization for this use. It is the County’s expectation that the FDEP evaluation of the materials submitted on August 1, 2016 will include a requirement for the [USACE] or City of Sarasota to obtain authorization prior to moving the [permit application] forward in the review process.”
City Engineer DavisShaw subsequently told the News Leader the project crew could use a different location than Sperling Park.
The county letter was not the only document FDEP received close to the Sept. 1 deadline. Catherine Luckner, second vice president of the SKA, pointed out during a Sept. 14 telephone interview with the News Leader that FDEP’s file on the Lido permit application showed the receipt of an Aug. 30 letter from Charlie Hunsicker, director of Manatee County’s Parks and Natural Resources Department. It documented that county’s “intentions to enter into an agreement with the City of Sarasota and [the USACE] to provide compensatory seagrass mitigation at the County’s Rookery at Perico Seagrass Advance Mitigation site to offset proposed impacts from the [Lido Renourishment] Project.”
Hunsicker’s letter added that the specific amount of acreage “has not been formally determined and is pending assessment by FDEP.”
He also noted that his department would recommend to the Manatee County Commission “that [Manatee] County move forward with establishing an agreement between the parties that details the responsibilities of each party and the financial terms associated with the sale of the right to implement seagrass establishment at the Rookery at Perico.”
That approval is anticipated during the Manatee board’s Sept. 27 meeting, Hunsicker added.
Concerns about the seagrass plan
Both the SKA and SOSS2 have raised issues about the seagrass mitigation plan.
In a Sept. 1 email to the News Leader, Luckner wrote that SKA has objected to the use of Perico Preserve partly on the basis of the plan’s noncompliance with an FDEP regulation calling for homogeneity of a mitigation site with the seagrass areas that will be destroyed by a project.
Research she and her husband, Bob — an SKA Environmental Committee member — have undertaken, Luckner said, also shows that Perico Preserve is “a borrow pit area that doesn’t have any direct access” to Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. She added, though, that Manatee County is dredging a channel to allow the flow of water into the preserve.
A press release Manatee County staff issued in May says the 176-acre Perico Preserve is located on the north side of Manatee Avenue, east of the Anna Maria Bridge and Neal Preserve. “In the center of the preserve’s 16-acre seagrass habitat is a specially designed rookery island intended to serve as a nesting site for wading birds,” the release adds.
“The upland portion of the site is made up of abandoned farmland,” the release adds. “Thousands of native plants were planted during the restoration. The remaining 120 acres of the property remain preserved mangrove forest and bayou with seagrass,” it says.
A document describing the creation of the preserve — which the News Leader found on the Manatee County Government website — notes, “The creation of seagrass habitat from uplands as advance mitigation for public infrastructure projects is the first of its kind in this area ….”
In its August letter to FDEP commenting on the USACE’s response to the state’s second request for additional information, Martha Collins, the attorney for SOSS2 pointed out, “Seagrass mitigation does not always work.” In some instances in regard to the Lido project, she argues, the USACE has failed to consider area-wide consequences, “even claiming there will be no impacts to seagrass beds as [those] fall outside a zone of potential impact.’
Furthermore, the letter says that the city and the USACE have “failed to show they can financially protect or monitor the impacts to seagrass beds” during the initial dredging, “let alone [during] the projects that will be required every five years for maintenance [of South Lido Beach].”
Potential negative effects on other aquatic life
Yet another document FDEP received in the latter part of August points to concerns about other species that could be adversely affected by the dredging of Big Pass.
On Aug. 19, Ann Harvey Holbrook, staff attorney for Save the Manatee Club, wrote FDEP, pointing out that the Florida Administrative Code says, “No project may be permitted which would impair the growth and reproduction of resident species, including species and communities based on seagrass ecosystems.” Therefore, she continued, before FDEP issues a permit to the USACE and the City of Sarasota, “an updated benthic resource survey should be conducted and made available to the public.”
“Benthic” refers to the lowest level of a body of water, including the sediment surface and some sub-surface layers. Organisms living in that zone — including crustaceans — are called the “benthos”; they are an important part of the food chain, research shows.
Holbrook added, “Because there has been no prior dredging in [Big Pass], the area is especially well-suited to the presence and continued propagation of stable submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) communities. The permit must assess cumulative impacts [from] both the initial dredging and from long-term maintenance dredging,” she wrote. “This scope of the analysis should include impacts to surrounding vegetation as well as to SAV within the project footprint. Save the Manatee Club is concerned that these impacts have not been properly considered, and mitigation may be necessary,” Holbrook pointed out.
Luckner of the SKA has told the News Leader of a related concern. The response the USACE submitted to FDEP on Aug. 1 says the plan is to place 950,000 cubic yards of sand on a 1.6-mile stretch of South Lido Key Beach. However, the proposal calls for dredging almost 1.2 million cubic yards. The project description from the USACE accounts for the difference by referencing “losses from borrow area to beach template due to the nature of dredging work.”
In other words, Luckner told the News Leader, about 26 percent of the sand is expected to be lost in Big Pass. She has questioned how much the “losses from borrow area” in the water will diminish the amount of sunshine that streams through. That situation, she said, could lead to negative effects on the aquatic food chain.
Holbrook pointed out, too, that the Sarasota Bay Estuarine System — which includes Big Pass — is designated Outstanding Florida Waters. The Florida Administrative Code, she added, does not allow degradation of water quality in such areas.
As for the manatees themselves …
Holbrooke also noted in her letter that the waters of Big Pass “are designated as high-use manatee habitat in the Sarasota County Manatee Protection Plan (MPP).” The club is concerned, she noted, that dredging of the pass “will increase boat traffic and boating speeds in this manatee high-use area. [The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] should be consulted on this issue, and the applicant should be required to contribute financially toward increased presence of law enforcement, outreach and education, and targeted patrols for safety and compliance as a contingency of proceeding with this project.”