Army Corps of Engineers cites presence of underwater city infrastructure and seagrass, plus sand issues as reasons for modifying engineering drawings
Close to a third of one area of Big Sarasota Pass has been eliminated as a sand source for the planned South Lido Key Beach Renourishment Project, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.
Maps provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in its solicitation for bids for the project show the easternmost portion of Cut C has been marked “No Dredging.” Trisston Brown, a spokesman for the USACE, told the News Leader that the engineering technical team for the Lido initiative had determined that portion of the borrow area contains approximately 105,000 cubic yards of sand.
In early October 2018, Robert Luckner, a representative of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), notified Sarasota City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw that he had found information through the city’s GIS mapping system about a city potable water line in Cut C. His research showed the pipeline crossing from Sarasota County’s Ted Sperling Park on South Lido to the Bay Island system on northern Siesta Key.
In perusing USACE documents, he added, the only mention he had seen in regard to any underwater infrastructure in that sand borrow area was a notation of a cable crossing. Luckner asked what steps the city and the USACE would take to avoid the cable and the potable watermain if they were able to proceed with dredging in that part of Big Pass.
DavisShaw replied that she would check with city Utilities Department staff and provide Luckner an answer.
Sixteen days later — on Oct. 18, 2018 — DavisShaw responded that she had contacted USACE staff members about the infrastructure. “They are aware of it,” she added, “and as part of the design effort will get more detail on the facilities and [note] them on the plans.”
In response to News Leader questions about the change involving Cut C in the bid package, Brown, the USACE spokesman, wrote in a June 14 email, “The eastern portion of Borrow Area C is permitted by FDEP [the Florida Department of Environmental Protection] as beach-compatible fill sand. However, it is a lower priority area for a few reasons:
“1) the available volume is relatively small and the cut depth is relatively thin compared to other borrow areas to be dredged;
“2) a portion of Borrow Area C is unavailable due to a no-dredge buffer around water mains and an electric cable that cross the inlet;
“3) sparse seagrasses exist adjacent to the dredge area with the potential to be impacted; and
“4) the sand in the other borrow areas is slightly more compatible with the existing beach.”
The bid package provides details about sediment samples taken at various locations in the borrow areas through a method called “vibracoring.” A number of references are made to “poorly-graded” sand in the eliminated section of Cut C.
As for the seagrass in that part of the borrow area: On May 20, the Sarasota City Commission was scheduled to consider a seagrass mitigation agreement with the Manatee County Commission because of expected destruction of seagrass with the dredging of Big Pass. However, DavisShaw asked that the item be pulled from the agenda because of USACE requests she received the previous Friday, May 17, regarding modifications for the agreement.
SKA representatives and the nonprofit Suncoast Waterkeeper have protested the mitigation plan for a number of reasons, including the distance of Perico Preserve — a manmade basin connected to Tampa Bay — from Big Pass.
In a memo to the City Commission in advance of the May 20 meeting, DavisShaw had explained that the proposed removal of sand from Big Pass was anticipated to destroy 1.68 acres of seagrass. As a result, the permit the city and the USACE received from FDEP for the Lido Renourishment Project called for the creation of 2.9 to 3.2 acres of new seagrass as mitigation.
The Final Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) the USACE completed in July 2018 for the Lido Renourishment Project included a graphic showing the sections of the proposed sand borrow areas where biologists had found seagrasses. Notes accompanying that graphic referenced seagrasses observed “in the northeastern portion of the investigation area,” referring to the part of Cut C that the USACE has eliminated in the bid package. The notes added that two types of seagrasses were found there “in varying densities between 50 and 100 percent cover in shallow waters up to four feet in depth.
A May 19 letter from the SKA to the City Commission pointed out,“Our region recently faced severe water quality challenges,” referring to the environmental devastation of the red tide bloom last year. “It’s highly unlikely that destruction of healthy and species-dependent sea grass is recommended at this time by any of our environmental non-profit entities and merits further discussion,” the letter added.
Justin Bloom, who heads up the nonprofit Suncoast Waterkeeper, told the News Leader, “[W]e oppose the dredging project as planned and find that the mitigation proposal is not consistent with law and regulations.”
Further, Bloom wrote, “For the last several years we have been urging a full [Environmental Impact Statement] be performed and believe that moving forward based on the existing record of information and the finding of no significant impact by the Corps is arbitrary and capricious and a violation of [the National Environmental Policy Act].”
An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is an in-depth analysis of all issues relating to a project such as the one the USACE has proposed for Lido Beach. The USACE has declined to undertake such a comprehensive review, asserting in the Final Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact no harm will come to Big Pass or Siesta Key, based on the modeling and other analysis it has pursued in preparation for the Lido Renourishment Project.
Both the SKA and a second Siesta-based nonprofit, Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2), are pursuing legal challenges in an effort to stop the dredging of Big Pass out of concern that the project would result in serious damage to Siesta’s shoreline and Big Pass itself as a navigational channel. The SKA filed a complaint in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in March 2017, while SOSS2 filed suit against the USACE in January in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.
Responding to the USACE’s modification of the dredging plans in Big Pass, SKA President Catherine Luckner wrote the News Leader in a June 14 email that the federal agency “is finally accepting our previous statements about that portion of Borrow Area ‘C’ having little sand value and [the] illegality [of mitigating] seagrass destruction outside Sarasota County.
“The City of Sarasota has been spared a needless and environmentally destructive contract for mitigation,” Luckner added.
Furthermore, Luckner pointed out, the USACE decision raises a question regarding the DOAH decision — and ultimately the FDEP permit language — regarding Borrow Area C. “The judge had clear regulatory authority to exclude 500 feet on either side of the water line and electric conduit,” Luckner stressed. “Did the City omit this relevant information [about those lines to the USACE]?” Luckner asked. Did the USACE project team members “not have access to utility engineering drawings for their design calculations?”
Peter van Roekens, chair of SOSS2, told the News Leader, “This clearly shows that this project needs an EIS, which would have revealed the pipeline as well as many other as yet undiscovered problems with the current plan.”
Details about the USACE solicitation
The advertisement of the USACE bid package on the Federal Business Opportunities website says the posting went up on May 16. The original response date for interested companies was June 19; however, that has been pushed back to July 2, the posting says.
During a joint meeting of the Sarasota and Charlotte County commissions in late February, a consultant working with both counties on Manasota Key Beach renourishment projects pointed out that only a few companies worldwide continue to pursue major dredging initiatives.
Michael T. Poff, president of Coastal Engineering Consultants in Naples, indicated that the bigger the project, the more interest it would generate among those firms.
On May 23, the USACE filed its first amendment to its Lido bid package. Numerous other amendments followed on June 11.
A pre-bid conference has been scheduled for June 25.
In accord with the Joint Coastal Permit FDEP issued in June 2018 to the city and the USACE, one document in the solicitation makes it clear that dredging is prohibited in Borrow Area B “from April through September of any construction event year.” That measure was designed to protect the spotted seatrout, whose spawning in that area and the easternmost portion of Cut C was documented by a Florida scientist during a Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) proceeding conducted mostly in Sarasota in December 2017. The SKA and SOSS2 had filed challenges with the DOAH in an effort to prevent the dredging of Big Pass.
A witness for both nonprofits, R. Grant Gilmore Jr., president of the Vero Beach consulting firm Estuarine, Coastal and Ocean Science Inc., explained to the administrative law judge the research he had undertaken on the spotted seatrout in Big Pass.
Additionally, the USACE solicitation says, “No more than 1.3 million cubic yards of material shall be dredged from Borrow Area B, C, and D.”
That maximum level was set by FDEP Secretary Noah Valenstein in the June 2018 Joint Coastal Permit — again, based on testimony during the DOAH proceeding.