This summer, county staff anticipates providing update on feasibility study regarding reopening of Midnight Pass to restore tidal flow between Little Sarasota Bay and Gulf of Mexico

Legislature’s 2024 appropriations bill includes $500,000 for study

This image shows Midnight Pass before it was closed in 1983. The image is on the Restore Midnight Pass Now!! Facebook page

Sarasota County staff hopes to have Phase 1 of a new feasibility study regarding the opening of Siesta Key’s Midnight Pass ready for a presentation to the County Commission on July 9 or Aug. 27, a Feb. 21 report says.

Provided by Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham, the report reminds the board members that they authorized the new study on Oct. 10, 2023, after a discussion during their regular meeting that day.

The study is being conducted in two phases, the Feb. 21 report points out.“Phase 1 includes the identification and assessment of concepts and alternatives, not limited to a fully dredged tidal inlet to improve overall water quality [within] the Little Sarasota Bay estuary,” the report explains.

“The focus of this effort will be on the coastal engineering and process requirements for a hydraulic connection including consideration of the State and Federal regulatory requirements and constraints,” the report continues. The work includes a review of background information on the project; coordination with regulatory agencies — such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP); assessment of potential alternatives for re-establishing tidal flow between Little Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico; development of a summary of the efforts; and a presentation of the findings to the commissioners.

The scope of work for Phase 1 is estimated to cost $73,275, the report notes.

If the board members agree that staff should proceed to Phase 2, the report adds, the scope of work for that phase would be developed with accord with the board’s guidance. It would include an engineering analysis “of a preferred alternative,” the report adds.

Staff used what is called the county’s Professional Services Coastal Engineering Consultant Library to assign the Phase 1 work to Applied Technology and Management (ATM), the report says. “ATM has long-term experience on coastal engineering projects in, and around and with Sarasota County,” the report points out.

ATM’s headquarters is in Gainesville, its website notes. “Applied Technology & Management, Inc. (ATM) offers a uniquely integrated, interdisciplinary team of experts comprised of engineers, analysts, designers and scientists,” the company’s website says. “With specialized expertise and experience on a variety of projects spanning the globe, our team of professionals has the diverse skills necessary to achieve your goals.”

This graphic is included with a Sept. 14, 2023 post on what is now the Restore Midnight Pass Now!! Facebook page.

If the board direction ultimately is for staff to proceed with a new application to reopen Midnight Pass, the report continues, a number of issues will need to be considered. Among those will be the financing of the effort, it notes. The report reiterates a figure that staff has cited in the past as an estimate for the design of a project, the construction, mitigation of any environmental issues, and operating costs for nine years: $84 million. “There is currently no funding identified for work associated with Midnight Pass,” the report adds.

In regard to mitigation, the report explains that that would be “a significant design component” of any undertaking, because of the anticipated effects of the construction on seagrasses and other natural resources.

“Development of the design would include a detailed review and analysis of impacts on wildlife, water quality, habitat, and other natural resources,” the report explains.

The last county effort to restore the tidal flow through Midnight Pass began in December 2003, the report reminds the commissioners. In late 2008, FDEP issued a notice of intent to deny the county’s application, the report adds. As a result, the report continues, the county withdrew its application on Feb. 13, 2009.

“Should the [County Commission] seek to move forward with re-activating this project, the next step would be to schedule formal pre-application meetings with FDEP and the Federal review agencies, with a particular focus on the National Marine Fisheries and the US Fish and Wildlife Service,” the report recommends.

In their 2022 campaigns for seats on the county board, Commissioners Joe Neunder of Venice and Mark Smith of Siesta Key offered strong support for reopening Midnight Pass, which was closed in December 1983 by owners of property on the shoreline in the waterway’s vicinity. Erosion was threatening their homes, so they worked to try to establish a pass farther south, “but all attempts failed,” the Feb. 21 county report notes.

David Tomasko, executive director of the nonprofit Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, addressed the board members in April 2023, at their invitation, to discuss options for the reopening of the pass. He made it clear that the water quality in Little Sarasota Bay had been improving and that, because of its isolation, that bay has been spared the devastating effects of recent red tide events.

This graphic summarizes the status of Little Sarasota Bay as of the spring of 2023. David Tomasko, executive director of the nonprofit Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, showed it to the commissioners during an April 11 presentation. Image courtesy Sarasota Bay Estuary Program

Nonetheless, Tomasko told the commissioners, hurricanes — and even heavy rain events — can produce what he called “salinity stratification and bottom water hypoxia” in Little Sarasota Bay. That means that an influx of freshwater rests above the saltier water, and the saltier water is unable to get oxygen from the atmosphere or photosynthesis. “Very poor habitat quality” results, he added.

Bigger fish can swim away, Tomasko said, but everything on the bottom of the water body dies.

A week after Hurricane Ian’s strike on Southwest Florida in late September 2022, Tomasko said, he worked with researchers to collect water samples from Little Sarasota Bay, Roberts Bay and Blackburn Bay. The samples showed the biggest problems with stratification and bottom water hypoxia were in Little Sarasota Bay, Tomasko pointed out.

That situation “lasted at least two weeks,” he added.

Optimism about government funding support

During the commission’s regular meeting on Feb. 21, Commissioner Smith reported to his colleagues that he had met with staff of both of Florida’s United States senators —Republicans Marco Rubio and Rick Scott — as well as assistants on the staff of U.S. Rep. Greg Steube of Sarasota, during Smith’s recent trip to Washington, D.C., to attend the National Association of Counties’ legislative event.

Their discussions focused partly on the history of Midnight Pass and opportunities to restore the ecosystem that was present when the tidal flow existed between the Gulf and Little Sarasota Bay.

Smith added that he received positive responses during those discussions.

Additionally, at the county’s request, state Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, submitted a bill in the Florida House this year that sought $1 million for the Midnight Pass initiative.

Rep. Fiona McFarland. File image

The form required for items to be considered as part of the Legislature’s annual appropriations bill says the county would provide $1,641,192 — 62.1% of the expense — of the “[f]easibility and concept planning, environmental studies, regulatory coordination and preliminary engineering for water quality improvement projects within Little Sarasota Bay including but not limited to consideration of the reestablishment of a tidal connection between the Gulf of Mexico and Little Sarasota Bay.”

The section of that form that asks for “any documented show of support for the requested project in the community” explains, “Residents, businesses and property owners have expressed continual support for an effort to improve water quality within Little Sarasota Bay.

Innumerable email and calls to the county and personal testimony at County Commission and State Legislative Delegation meetings can be documented to demonstrate overwhelming support for this project.”

Yet another section of the form says that improved water quality in Little Sarasota Bay “is expected to increase the population of fisheries, shellfish and seagrasses”; and that it would be “expected to increase economic and tourism activity in this part of Sarasota County with increased boating, related retail/commercial activities and property values.”

Additionally, the form notes, “Improved surface water quality within Little Sarasota Bay is expected to provide increased water clarity with lower nutrient levels due to more frequent tidal flushing.”

In response to a March 6 News Leader inquiry regarding the status of that funding request in the Legislature’s general appropriations bill, which was approved this week, Rob Lewis, director of governmental relations for the county, reported that the bill contains $500,000 for the Little Sarasota Bay project.

Gov. Ron DeSantis does have line-item veto power in regard to the appropriations bill. Last year, he eliminated a number of local requests.