City engineer tells Sarasota County that it appears the peer review team it hired did not avail itself of all the information available online to support the proposal for dredging Big Pass
Just five days after the City of Sarasota provided long-sought comments to Sarasota County staff regarding a peer review the county commissioned of the city’s proposed Lido Renourishment Project, a staff member of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) notified the city engineer that the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) risk an automatic denial of their permit application for the undertaking unless they provide some sort of update to FDEP by April 7.
In the meantime, USACE spokeswoman Amanda Parker told The Sarasota News Leader on March 10 that President Barack Obama’s 2017 fiscal year budget does not include any funding for the renourishment of Lido Key Beach. However, Amanda Parker said in the telephone interview, Congress could take a different stance on the issue.
The FDEP letter to City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw and Eric Summa, chief of the Environmental Branch of the USACE in Jacksonville — dated March 7 — reminds them that they were notified on Oct. 7, 2015, that their application for a Joint Coastal Permit was incomplete. The letter was signed by Gregory Garis, an environmental specialist with FDEP’s Beaches, Inlets & Ports Program.
The News Leader reported last week that Chiu Cheng, who was overseeing the permit application process for FDEP, left his position at the end of February.
In response to a request about his replacement, FDEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller wrote in a March 3 email,
“Greg Garis will assume the lead on the processing of this permit.” She added, “He has been providing oversight for this permitting effort for the past couple of months and is fully up to speed on this issue. Greg has been with the department 3 years processing Joint Coastal Permits (JCPs).”
In a March 9 telephone interview with the News Leader, DavisShaw characterized Garis’ letter merely as a reflection of the change in management of the city/USACE permit application at the state level. Prior to Cheng’s departure, she said, the USACE and its consultant in the project — CB&I Coastal Planning & Engineering Inc. in Boca Raton — were communicating with Cheng about the response to FDEP’s second Request for Additional Information (RAI2), which Garis references in his letter.
The USACE and its consultant will get an update to Garis on where things stand with that response, DavisShaw added.
On March 10, when the News Leader asked Parker of the USACE when the official response to RAI2 would be delivered to the state, she replied, “They haven’t given me a timeline.”
In September 2013, USACE Project Manager Milan Mora unveiled the plans for the dredging of Big Sarasota Pass to renourish Lido Key Beach every five years over a period of 50 years. The initial proposal called for about 1.3 million cubic yards of sand to be removed from the pass’ ebb shoal for the first phase of the undertaking and for the construction of three groins on south Lido Key to help hold the sand in place between nourishments on about 1.6 miles of the beach. Subsequently, the USACE has reduced the amount of sand to 775,000 cubic yards, and it has eliminated one groin.
The estimated cost of the project also has been lowered. The original amount Mora cited in September 2013 was about $22.7 million. However, the most recent figure is $19 million, Parker confirmed for the News Leader on March 10. Close to two-thirds of that funding would be needed from the federal government, DavisShaw and Mora have pointed out.
The USACE and the city also had planned to start the undertaking in the fall/winter of 2015, according to documents filed with FDEP, with an estimate that the work would take up to 120 days.
In his March 7 letter, Garis pointed out to DavisShaw and Summa that if they cannot submit their completed answer to the RAI2 by April 7, they may request a six-month extension, “but only if you can clearly demonstrate that you have been actively working on the response …”
He added that FDEP would “automatically deny [his emphasis] the application without prejudice (and without further notice) if a withdrawal, a request for an extension or a complete response to the RAI is not received by April 7, 2016.”
City response to the peer review
In August 2014, the Sarasota County Commission authorized staff to pay up to $50,000 to undertake a peer review of the city/USACE project proposal after hearing pleas from members of the public, who were alarmed about the possibility of the dredging of Big Pass, which never has seen such activity.
In late October 2015, the Atkins engineering firm — which received the $49,620 contract — delivered its final version of the peer review. As a county staff member pointed out to the News Leader, the recurring theme in the document was that the USACE might have completed sufficient research to determine that no negative impacts, or minimal effects, would result from the dredging of Big Pass. “But the point [Atkins team members] make is they’re not seeing or finding all the analysis” to support that view, county Coastal Initiatives Manager Laird Wreford said.
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.”
Subsequent to the report’s release, County Commission Chair Al Maio told organizations on Siesta Key that county staff members had sought responses on it from FDEP and the city. FDEP has made the document part of the file it has assembled on the project permit application, though staff has declined to offer any comments, spokeswoman Miller told the News Leader.
On March 2, DavisShaw sent her letter to Wreford, terming it “our initial communication” regarding the peer review. She added, “We hope this will help us continue to engage in a beneficial discussion and ensure we have the best project we can.”
She cited a “point of great concern” in the report’s comments about Atkins’ inability to get answers to all of its questions. The team members would have found “that many of their questions would have been answered,” she wrote, if they had researched all the available data online that the USACE used in developing its plans.
Furthermore, she noted, the city and the USACE “are unaware of any request for data, but our goal is to make sure Atkins understands the project and can give helpful comments and recommendations to improve the project.”
In early November 2015, the News Leader cited a possible discrepancy regarding the Atkins report’s statements about the team’s inability to get information it sought. Lt. Col. Susan J. Jackson (U.S. Army Reserve), a USACE spokeswoman in Jacksonville, told the News Leader that someone did contact Project Manager Mora for information, and he told the caller how to reach the USACE consultant. The consulting engineers “have not received an information request via phone or email,” Jackson wrote in an email. “I checked with other project team members, and no one on the [USACE] team received a request for information,” Jackson added.
In her March 7 letter, DavisShaw wrote that the USACE would be “very willing to review the information with Atkins and answer any questions [its team members] may have.”
As for concerns expressed in the peer review about the dredging of Big Pass, DavisShaw continued, “The volume of water that is pushed out through the pass is very large. The natural channel is over 20 [feet] deep in locations, in part because of the shoal restricting the flow of water through Big Pass.”
She further cited lack of clarity in the peer review regarding concerns about the potential effects on navigation as a result of the dredging. She asked that Atkins provide more information on the risk its team noted.
DavisShaw also pointed out, “We will include monitoring of the project,” adding that Big Pass would be used as a sand source for subsequent renourishments of Lido only if “the shoal has filled back in and the system is behaving as designed.”
In response to a News Leader request for a response to DavisShaw’s letter, Matt Osterhoudt, senior manager of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, wrote in an email this week, “No comment at this time regarding the City’s comments. Our next step is the presentation on March 23 from Atkins.”
He was referring to a public discussion scheduled between the Atkins team and the County Commission about the peer review. It is set for the afternoon of March 23 at the County Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard in Sarasota.
Catherine Luckner, vice president of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), and her husband, Bob, have been representing the nonprofit community organization in communications with FDEP, city and county representatives. In response to a News Leader request, Catherine Luckner wrote in a March 9 email that she and Bob Luckner felt DavisShaw’s letter reflected “a process change in the permit application.”
Noting the city’s willingness to address comments from the Atkins report, she added that while none of DavisShaw’s statements specifically touched on questions the Luckners have raised about the groin redesign or an improved mechanism of shoreline stabilization, “an opening for expert discussion is welcome.”
She and her husband remain concerned, Catherine Luckner continued, about the “lack of help in the future” if significant problems arose following the dredging of Big Pass and the construction of the groins. “We have suggested a strategy of reducing the volume and location of dredging as well as a permeable groin … that could accrete sand on a managed basis. This would be a better experiment,” she continued, in that it would allow analysis of the benefits and risks “without catastrophic impact.”
The News Leader also sought comments from Peter van Roekens, chair of the board of Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2). After a discussion of DavisShaw’s letter during the nonprofit group’s March 8 board meeting, he told the News Leader in an email that SOSS2 would send its own letter to the County Commission “in the next few days” about DavisShaw’s response. He continued, “I see no conflict between Atkins being unable to provide a professional opinion on the recommendations and Atkins’ comments about the data and modeling.”
If the project had been clearly documented, he added, then the questions would be easily answered.
“And as to the request for more data,” he noted, “Atkins stated that this request had been made … through the County. That should be easy to track in the form of email trails from Atkins to the County to the [USACE]. Of course that link could have been broken at any point including at the [USACE].”
The News Leader never was able to get a definitive response from county staff regarding the chain of communications that sought additional information for the Atkins team.