Seagrass mitigation plan with Manatee County wins City Commission’s unanimous approval

Opponents point to research showing problems with using Perico Preserve habitat to make up for destruction of Big Pass seagrass

A graphic shows details about Perico Preserve and Big Pass in the context of the seagrass mitigation plans. This was included in the backup agenda material for the City Commission in advance of the May 20 meeting. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

It took only about 15 minutes on July 15 for the Sarasota City Commission to unanimously approve an agreement with Manatee County necessary before Big Sarasota Pass could be dredged for the long-range renourishment project for South Lido Key Beach.

The agreement calls for the creation of new seagrass populations to compensate for those expected to be killed during the removal of up to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Pass for use in stabilizing about 1.6 miles of South Lido Key Beach.

The vote on a motion by Commissioner Willie Shaw, seconded by Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, came after two members of the public urged the board not to vote on the proposed agreement that day. A third speaker offered full support of the plan.

Additionally, the Siesta Key Association sent a letter to the commissioners, dated July 11, urging them to defer action on the agreement pending outcome of a lawsuit the nonprofit filed against the city in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in March 2017. That complaint seeks to prevent any removal of sand from Big Pass.

The city was a co-applicant with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in obtaining a Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) permit for the Lido Renourishment Project.

The document the City Commission approved on July 15 calls for the city to pay for the creation of seagrass habitat covering up to 3.2 acres in Perico Preserve, which Manatee County created several years ago. The new habitat would serve as mitigation for the 1.68 acres of seagrass the USACE believes will be destroyed in Big Pass.

A graphic in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ July 2018 Finding of No Significant Impact for the Lido project, published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, includes this graphic showing facets of the seagrass mitigation plans. Image from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw explained to the commissioners on July 15 that the city’s projected expense of $1,124,839.84 for the Manatee County initiative already had been figured into the overall city expense for the Lido Renourishment Project.

A June 26 memo from DavisShaw to the commissioners put the total cost of dredging and placement of sand on South Lido at $19,205,073. The USACE has allocated $12,275,626 to that initiative, the memo said, with the city and the state evenly splitting the remaining $6,295,753.84.

The USACE issued a solicitation package on May 16 for what is officially the Lido Key Hurricane Storm Damage Reduction Project. The federal agency twice has pushed back the deadline for bids, with July 23 the latest date announced. (See the related story in this issue.)

The City Commission originally was scheduled to consider the seagrass mitigation agreement on May 20, just four days after the USACE issued the original solicitation package for the Lido project. However, the USACE asked DavisShaw to pull the item from the agenda so modifications could be made to the agreement.

In the bid package, the USACE eliminated approximately one-third of Borrow Area — or “Cut” — C in Big Pass, which contains about 105,000 cubic yards of sand, the USACE told The Sarasota News Leader. One reason for the decision, USACE spoksesman Trisston Brown wrote the News Leader in an email, was “[S]parse seagrasses exist adjacent to the dredge area with the potential to be impacted …”

Pleas for deferring a vote

The two speakers on July 15 who asked the City Commission to again hold off on the seagrass mitigation agreement were Michael Holderness, an owner and manager of property on Siesta Key, and Justin Bloom, a founder and member of the board of the Suncoast Waterkeeper. Bloom noted that he is a resident of the city of Sarasota.

Holderness pointed out that a county policy — with which he contends the city must comply, based on a city policy — calls for any mitigation of seagrass destroyed in Sarasota County to be undertaken in Sarasota County.

The county policy is contained in Article XX of the County Code, which governs the Water and Navigation Control Authority (WNCA). The County Commission serves as the WNCA.

This is part of the Sarasota County Code of Ordinances, Section 54-656(7)(d)(2), which Michael Holderness referenced on July 15. Image from the County Code

When Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie asked City Engineer DavisShaw about that seagrass policy, DavisShaw explained that the USACE’s biologists worked with city biologists but “were not able to find a sizable location for this [mitigation] … that was acceptable … in Sarasota County.”

Pansy Bayou is shown near Lido Key. Image from the Sarasota County Water Atlas

One site studied, DavisShaw noted, was in Pansy Bayou, which is between City Island and Lido Key. However, she continued, Mote Marine Laboratory staff asked that that be excluded from consideration because of the protection that bayou provides small fish.

Holderness also provided the commissioners with detailed information from R. Grant Gilmore Jr., senior scientist with Estuarine, Coastal and Ocean Science Inc. of Vero Beach, who is an expert on spotted seatrout.

In issuing the state permit for the Lido project to the USACE and the city in June 2018, FDEP Secretary Noah Valenstein specified that certain sand borrow areas in Big Pass would be off limits to dredging from April through September, when the spotted seatrout spawns in them. Valenstein included that directive on the basis of testimony Gilmore presented during a 2017 Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) proceeding on the proposed USACE Lido project.

Gilmore provided the same information to the News Leader, at its request, that he had emailed to Holderness. He also included copies of the research papers on which he based the following statements:

  • “The Perico seagrass is located at the mouth of a large freshwater river, the Manatee River, so [it] is influenced by freshwater flows from that river. The Sarasota Big Pass seagrass is located at a large opening to the Gulf of Mexico, a major saline ecosystem … These widely differing salinity environments mean that even though the seagrass species may be the same, the creatures that associate with these two different ecosystems will not be the same. It is like stating that apples and oranges are the same fruit. Research over the past 50 years has demonstrated otherwise. For example, in 2018 we captured a Gag Grouper, Mycteroperca microlepis, juvenile in the Sarasota Big Pass seagrass. This species supports the valuable Florida grouper fisheries. Gag grouper would not use the lower salinity Perico mitigation seagrass site.”
  • “Perico and Big Pass seagrass meadows play a different role in supporting fisheries as high salinity pass seagrass at Sarasota Big Pass will support open Gulf [of Mexico] fisheries while lower salinity Perico wetland seagrass will support euryhaline lower salinity fish communities. Inlet seagrass meadows contain a different fish fauna than those further into the bays or lagoons even though the species of seagrass may be the same. Their functional role relative to the animals that associate with them may also be different.”
  • “Spotted Seatrout do not spawn adjacent to the Perico site, but do spawn within Sarasota Big Pass. Spotted Seatrout spawn at the northwest mouth of Tampa Bay, avoiding the lower salinity waters at the mouth of the Manatee River.”
  • “Post larval Spotted Seatrout settle in seagrass meadows close to the spawning site. Since there is no Spotted Seatrout spawning adjacent to the Perico mitigation site it will not serve as a Spotted Seatrout nursery in the same manner as the seagrass at Sarasota Big Pass.”
  • “Larval Spotted Seatrout cannot withstand low salinities such as the low salinities that would be encountered at the Perico mitigation site adjacent to the mouth of the Manatee River. They are tolerant of the salinities where the adults spawn, in this case the high salinities, marine conditions at the western opening of Sarasota’s Big Pass.”

Bloom of Suncoast Waterkeeper pointed out to the commissioners on July 15 that the members of his organization are “spread pretty evenly between Sarasota and Manatee counties,” with some living outside the area.

“You need to look at the larger picture of deteriorating water quality in our region,” Bloom continued, adding that it has been “tracked over a number of years, and now we are starting to see a decline in seagrass populations in Sarasota Bay, which is of significant concern.”

Later, City Manager Tom Barwin told the commissioners, “I hope I don’t get this wrong, but seagrasses in Sarasota Bay are relatively healthy compared to some other regional areas. That’s a good news story.”

However, Bloom’s statement to the commission is supported by research conducted by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) this year, which was presented during the Sarasota County Water Quality Summit on June 5. From 2016 to 2018, SWFWMD reported, Sarasota Bay lost 149 acres of seagrass.

A graphic provides details about seagrass decline over the past two years. Image courtesy Sarasota County

More research is underway to determine the reason for that decline and the loss of seagrass in other county bays, Mark Alderson, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, told the Water Quality Summit audience.

The third opponent of the Manatee County plan, the Siesta Key Association (SKA), pointed out in its July 11 letter to the City Commission that the proposed agreement with Manatee County “was initiated [in 2015] without public discussion and without City Commission oversight for permitting the sea grass destruction [emphasis in the letter].”

SKA President Catherine Luckner added, “Our region is facing multiple sources of severe coastal water quality degradation. It’s unlikely any destruction of healthy and species-dependent sea grass is recommended at any time in the near future by our environmental non-profit entities and coastal partners [emphasis again in the letter].”

During his July 15 public comments, Bloom also urged the City Commission to await the outcome of the SKA litigation in Circuit Court and federal litigation that another Siesta Key-based nonprofit, Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2), is pursuing.

SOSS2 filed its complaint against the USACE only after giving the federal agency the opportunity to conduct an EIS, which would be a full, in-depth analysis covering any potential environmental impacts of the Lido project. Both SOSS2 and the SKA have argued that dredging Big Pass would lead to significant damage of Siesta Key property and produce serious navigational challenges in the waterway.

In August 2016, the Sarasota County Commission voted to ask the USACE to undertake an EIS. The federal agency declined to do so, asserting — as it has consistently through the years — that its modeling and analyses show that no harm will come to Big Pass or Siesta Key.

On July 15, Commissioner Freeland Eddie asked City Engineer DavisShaw whether the city would have to undertake an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Lido project.

“I do not believe that’s accurate,” DavisShaw replied “It pertains to the lawsuit,” she added, referring to the SOSS2 litigation.