Significant increases in wave energy striking Siesta and Bird keys to be expected if Army Corps of Engineers allowed to proceed with Big Pass dredging plan, SKA leaders say research has shown

Sarasota city manager calls the graphics somewhat misleading and continues to seek collaboration on plan to help Lido’s critically eroded shoreline

Condominiums are easily visible across Big Pass on the evening of July 6. Rachel Hackney photo

The Siesta Key Association (SKA) has unveiled one of the key arguments it intends to make next month against the dredging alternative upon which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has settled for the proposed Lido Renourishment Project.

During the nonprofit’s regular meeting on July 6, Robert Luckner, a member of the SKA’s Environmental Committee, presented slides that the USACE submitted in its March 2015 application to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to win a permit for its joint project with the City of Sarasota. All along, Luckner said, the USACE has been saying that its plans will cause no change in the energy of the waves hitting Siesta Key. “We’re going to challenge them on that.”

In about six weeks, the first hearing on FDEP’s Dec. 22, 2016 Notice of Intent to issue the Lido permit to the USACE and the city will be held in Sarasota.

Luckner explained that the USACE’s studies about wave action were undertaken from May to November 2004, which was a “pretty stormy period of time,” given the number of hurricanes that hit the Florida coast.

Pointing to the graphics, Luckner noted areas where the wave energy striking Siesta would increase in a range from 60% to 100% as a result of the USACE’s plan to remove about 1.2 million cubic yards of sand from Big Pass.

Bird Key would see wave energy strikes rising 80% to 100%, he added.

Sarasota County’s Gulf-front property in Ted Sperling Park on South Lido Key also would realize increased wave energy of 50% to 60%, Luckner pointed out, based on the USACE’s own documentation.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers included this graphic in its March 2015 application to the state, showing depths in the borrow areas of Big Pass in 2004. Image courtesy FDEP

Why such big changes? The USACE proposes essentially to dig a hole that would be 500 feet wide, 13.5 feet deep and about 2 miles long through Big Pass, Luckner explained. “What in the world was the Corps thinking about when they picked this as their lead alternative?”

Referring to the USACE’s assertion that Siesta Key would see no change in wave energy, Luckner added, “They’ve just honestly been lying about it.”

An alternative dredging proposal — which would enable the USACE to obtain sand from the outer portion of the shoal in Big Pass and from the existing channel — essentially “cleaning it up,” as Luckner characterized it — would have produced as much sand as the agency says it needs for Lido, but without the large increase in wave energy. However, he believes the USACE project team members chose the option they have settled upon, he said, because “they think that [new] channel will trap all the sand that erodes off of Lido.” That way, the USACE can obtain sand more easily for subsequent renourishments on Lido.

The FDEP permit would be valid for 15 years, FDEP documents show, though the USACE has proposed a 50-year life of the Lido initiative, with further dredging of the pass every five to seven years.

Robert Luckner addresses the SKA audience on July 6. Rachel Hackney photo

The proposal for the specific borrow areas also would prevent the sand from drifting down to Siesta Key, as it does naturally, Luckner added. “That, to me, is another red flag. They’re actually going to somewhat starve us [of sand].”

A third dredging alternative the USACE studied would have been even worse, he continued. It would have removed sand west of what is termed “Cut B,” meaning the dredging would have been even further out in the Gulf of Mexico. “That turned out to be a disastrous idea,” he pointed out, because that would focus all the increased wave energy on Siesta Key. “They dropped that like a firecracker.”

An expert on wave energy will focus on this part of the permit application during the Division of Administrative Hearings proceeding set for the last two weeks of August in Sarasota, Luckner told the approximately 35 people in the audience.

A graphic the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers included in its March 2015 application to the state shows wave energy in the borrow areas if no dredging were undertaken. Image courtesy FDEP

A discussion with city staff

After learning about the wave energy aspect of the USACE proposal, Luckner continued, he and his wife, Catherine — the SKA’s vice president — asked to meet with City Manager Tom Barwin and other city staff members to discuss it. Barwin was surprised when they explained the findings, Robert Luckner added.

During a July 7 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Barwin said that the way the graphics were presented, with the different colors indicating variations in the wave energy, “in a small sense misrepresented the situation … which could be, I think, interpreted to really create a stir in people, when [the dredging would result in] quite a minor difference …” He added that the increased wave energy would be temporary, as the channel filled again with sand.

“We’ve been trying to think that through on our end,” Barwin said of the Luckners’ documentation. “I think both sides understand a lot more about the research involved in the project.”

Barwin told the News Leader that the meeting “was productive in the sense that we shared information in terms of trying to find a compromise to allow the vital work to occur to protect the shoreline on Lido and also meet our environmental desire to do no harm.”

Yet, while he felt city staff and the Luckners were “very close” to agreement on certain issues, Barwin continued, Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2) — the other Siesta Key-based nonprofit fighting the proposed dredging of Big Pass — has not been willing to cooperate on a solution and is focused on legal challenges.

Peter van Roekens, chair of SOSS2, has told the News Leader on numerous occasions that Barwin and other city staff members have declined to consider a “Plan B,” as van Roekens puts it: a project that would not damage the pass and, subsequently, Siesta Key.

During the July 7 interview with the News Leader, Barwin reiterated points he has made multiple times, especially in recent months: “We’re in a desperate situation here [with the eroding Lido shoreline]. We’re very vulnerable now. … We have had a tabletop drill” with the residents on Lido Key, he added, that covered facets of an emergency evacuation if a severe store were to threaten the coastline.

Several weeks ago, in one of his regular newsletters, Barwin also pointed to worries about the thousands of people who would be gathering on the slimmer swath of South Lido sand to watch the Suncoast Powerboat Grand Prix before the July Fourth holiday. “Our crowds were crammed in [for the recent races],” he told the News Leader on July 7.

People walk on the Big Pass sandbar on the evening of July 6. Rachel Hackney photo

“We continue to try to explain the need to have both [the Siesta and Lido] beaches [in] great [shape],” Barwin added, especially with the changes climate change has produced.

Scientific research has shown that the water in the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay has risen 7 inches since 1945, “and it’s going to continue to rise,” he said, probably an inch a decade. “This is a slow-motion crisis that’s picking up steam. … We all need to be working with and for each other.”

Yet, with no resolution to the Big Pass dredging proposal in sight, the city will just have to work through the administrative appeals process and, “ultimately,” Barwin predicted, “court.”

If the SKA, SOSS2 and the Florida Wildlife Federation — a third plaintiff in the upcoming Division of Administrative Hearings proceeding — lose at that level, the SKA is prepared to continue with its 12th Judicial Circuit Court complaint in an effort to keep Big Pass from being dredged.