Grand Canal Regeneration Project team of Siesta Key Association wins one grant and hopes to secure another

Group continuing to work on water quality improvements through installation of mini reefs

A slide presented to SKA members in January shows how mini reefs work. Image courtesy Siesta Key Association

Having recently won a grant from the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, the Siesta Key Association (SKA) team leading the Grand Canal Regeneration Project is hoping for similar success with the Sarasota County Neighborhood Grant Initiative Program.

That was part of the news that SKA Director Margaret Jean Cannon provided approximately 100 members of the nonprofit on June 3.

About half of the group participated via Zoom, while the others gathered for the first time in months in St. Boniface Episcopal Church’s Community Center.

Cannon talked about the nonprofit’s hopes of winning county funds for a project in the Grand Canal that has been designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of the mini reefs that the SKA team has been installing on homeowners’ docks.

The members of the SKA’s Grand Canal Regeneration Project group have identified an area encompassing Commonwealth Lane and Commonwealth Place, where homes are close to two county storm drains, Cannon explained.

A number of mini reefs already are in place in that location, she noted. The goal is to create a cluster of 30. The initiative “should improve the water quality visibly,” Cannon pointed out, “and that’s our intent.”

After the mini reefs have been under the docks for a while, she noted, the SKA team expects to be able to show much improved water quality around Commonwealth Lane and Commonwealth Place, compared to the water in a Venice Lane area on the canal that has no mini reefs, she added.

This graphic provides details about how the SKA team would use the county grant. The houses with yellow markers have mini reefs; those with blue markers do not. Image courtesy Margaret Jean Cannon

Upgrading the water quality is one key to lessening the potential for red tide blooms, Cannon pointed out, as fewer nutrients such as nitrogen, which is the primary food for the red tide algae, will be going into the canal. “You can see why I get so excited.”

As Cannon has explained in the past, the mini reefs made by the nonprofit company Ocean Habitats, located in Micanopy, draw sea life such as oysters and clams, which eat harmful nutrients in the water.

During a December 2019 presentation to SKA members, Sandy Gilbert, chair and CEO of Solutions To Avoid Red Tide (START), pointed out that, by installing mini reefs, “You’re creating a place [for sea creatures] to hide, a place to light. You’re creating food [for fish]. … You’re creating the habitat.”

Juvenile fish will return to the Grand Canal, he added.

Ocean Habitats notes on its website that mini reefs can result in the filtering of more than 30,000 gallons of water per day. The devices are 24 inches wide, 36 inches long and 24 inches deep. They float out of sight under docks.

The SKA team also has been in contact with leaders of the Out-of-Door Academy and a professor at the Ringling College of Art + Design “to do some of the science,” Cannon said on June 3. (The Academy’s Lower School is on Reid Street on the Key; its Middle and Upper schools are on the Uihlein Campus in Lakewood Ranch.)

This is a mini reef on a dock. Image from the Ocean Habitat website

Additionally, the team is at work on other grants that could pay for testing kits, Cannon noted. “Everybody’s got to be citizen scientists,” she explained, which will necessitate some training. The team wants to purchase digital tools, she added, to increase the accuracy and consistency of the testing results. Ideally, she said, the same type of kit would be used to test water around mini reefs from Anna Maria Island all the way south to Naples.

Cannon asked the members present at the church to take a couple of minutes before they left that evening to sign a county form showing support for the neighborhood grant application; she called that a key component of the process.

The county’s Neighborhood Initiative Grant Program was launched around 2003, the county website explains. It was designed to provide matching grants “to help neighborhoods improve their leadership, character, safety, health, or environment,” the county website says.

Completed applications for the latest round of those grants are due to county staff by 5 p.m. on June 25, the website points out. County staff will review them in July, the website adds, and then the Neighborhood Initiative Grant Advisory Committee will evaluate and score the applications during a meeting set for July 22.

Those recommended for approval will be presented to the County Commission in the fall, the website says

A status report

This graphic shows the distribution of mini reefs in the Grand Canal as of early May. Image courtesy Margaret Jean Cannon

Altogether, Cannon told the SKA members on June 3, the Grand Canal Regeneration Project has achieved the installation of 113 mini reefs at 84 homes; most of the residents participating in the undertaking have two mini reefs, she said.

Given the fact that 878 homes on the Grand Canal have docks, Cannon continued, the total number of mini reefs in the water represents close to 11% of the capacity.

She added that the team would wait until after the July Fourth holiday to install more of the devices. She has five homeowners signed up for that undertaking, she said; she hopes to get as many as 20.

In Venice, Cannon continued, an initiative underway is expected to lead to the installation of 100 mini reefs. Additionally, she said, Englewood has created a challenge program through which it hopes to see 1,000 of the devices installed.

The Sarasota Bay Estuary Funding grant

Additionally, Cannon noted on June 3, the SKA has received funding through a Sarasota Bay Estuary Program grant to introduce aeration devices around mini reefs already installed in the Grand Canal. The goal is to increase the level of dissolved oxygen, she explained, as that is low.

This section of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program website offers information on the nonprofit’s programs. Image from the SBEP

In response to Sarasota News Leader questions, Michael Dexter, finance and grants manager for the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP), explained in a June 7 email that, on May 14, the SBEP’s Policy Board approved a grant of $1,469 for the SKA’s project titled Under Dock Habitat With/Without Aeration for Species Comparison. SBEP’s Citizens Advisory Committee grant review subcommittee recommended the funding, he noted.

“This award represents partial funding of [the SKA’s] request for $2,656.63, due to funding being awarded for the monitoring component of the project but not for the purchase of the under dock reef modules,” Dexter added.

Altogether, the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program’s Policy Board approved 16 grants adding up to $56,001.26, as noted in a list Dexter sent the News Leader.

This slide shows details of how the SBEP grant will be used. Image courtesy Margaret Jean Cannon

In its application, the SKA explained the objectives of its proposal: “Dead-end canals in the Sarasota Bay watershed were built to accommodate waterfront housing. The natural habitat was removed without consideration to marine life sustainability. Subsequent legislation made adding habitat structure touching the bottom very difficult. If the structure does not touch the canal bottom, there is no permit required. This project will demonstrate the benefits of adding a floating habitat structure (a Mini Reef) under existing docks in public waterways. And, to assist growth, add aeration to improve dissolved oxygen levels improving sea life habitat. The regeneration project will show citizens that the marine environment can be naturally revived and enhanced with minimal human assistance. The results will be the regeneration of a sustainable juvenile fishery that will benefit everyone in the community.”

The application added, “Final species count and water quality changes will be reported on August 31, 2022.”

A related SBEP grant — $4,000 — went to the Center of Anna Maria Island for its Citizen Scientist Corps. That funding will be used for a partnership among the Center, Eckerd College and Mote Marine Laboratory “to recruit local citizen scientists to monitor under-dock Mini Reef installations for potential water quality and wildlife benefits,” the document says.

A slide shows results of a New College study undertaken about 1973 in the Grand Canal, which demonstrated the low level of water flow. Phil Chiocchio of the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Program presented it to SKA members in October 2019. File photo

SKA President Catherine Luckner pointed out on June 3 that leaders of the nonprofit worked for years to come up with ideas about how to improve the water quality in the Grand Canal.

Last year, Cannon began collaborating with Phil Chiocchio of the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum, after he made a couple of presentations to members about the effectiveness of mini reefs.

During his very first appearance at an SKA meeting — in October 2019 — Chiocchio noted that the 9-mile-long Grand Canal dates to 1925. Over the years, he explained, the dissolved oxygen level had fallen so low that the waterway had almost reached the point where “most things won’t survive.” His goal has been to see it revived by its centennial.

“Jean is just a ball of fire,” SKA President Luckner added on June 3.