Director of Sarasota Bay Estuary Program addresses calls for reopening of Midnight Pass
nstead of planning to reopen Midnight Pass between Siesta and Casey keys, the executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP) suggested this week that the Sarasota County Commission consider the potential of a tidal restoration project for Little Sarasota Bay.
“Tidal restoration is actually a pretty common project done around the United States,” David Tomasko told the commissioners during their regular meeting on April 11 in Venice.
Trying to reopen Midnight Pass, he pointed out, “is going to cost a lot,” if the county even could obtain the permits to do so.
Little Sarasota Bay has been isolated from the Gulf of Mexico since Siesta Key homeowners hired workers with bulldozers to close Midnight Pass in late 1983, Tomasko noted. However, he stressed, Little Sarasota Bay “is not dead. Don’t use that language. It doesn’t help you.”
Nonetheless, Tomasko continued, “There are problems that exist in Little Sarasota Bay,” and those could be improved through a tidal restoration project.
For example, he explained, 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, he told the commissioners, 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.
Then Tomasko provided three examples of tidal restoration initiatives with which he was involved while he was working in the private sector. One of them included the construction of a large culvert as part of a bridge in Fort DeSoto Park in Pinellas County. The creation of that culvert, he said, enables water to flow back and forth over an area of about 200 acres. The water velocity increased, he added, and the amount of seagrass increased.
“This [project] won an award in 2015,” he noted.
“The Florida Keys has plenty of tidal restoration projects done with culverts,” Tomasko said.
Nonetheless, he emphasized, without data produced by studies, he is unsure whether a tidal restoration initiative would be the best option for Little Sarasota Bay.
“Let the science tell you the problem that needs to be fixed,” he added; then, the argument can be made for fixing it.
Tomasko did caution the commissioners, “A wild pass is not going to necessarily stay the way you dug it …” It will move, he pointed out.
Construction of a jetty also can lead to problems, he continued, presenting the board members a slide showing a boat entering Venice Inlet from the Gulf of Mexico. To the north of the inlet, he said, plenty of sand exists on the beach. To the south, however, very little sand is present.
Further, Tomasko noted, during the most recent, severe red tide event — which started in the latter part of 2017 and continued into early 2019 — Little Sarasota Bay had less red tide than other areas of Sarasota Bay, as a result of its relative isolation. Restoring water circulation in Little Sarasota Bay would mean “you’re more likely to get red tide” in the waterway.
Tomasko added that the nutrients flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from the Caloosahatchee River in South Florida will “continue to make red tides worse for the next couple of decades.”
State funding sought for studies, with strong backing from public
Commissioner Joe Neunder, who had made the request for Tomasko’s presentation, voiced interest in the salinity stratification/bottom water hypoxia issue regarding Little Sarasota Bay. “That’s a nail in the coffin for a lot of species,” he said, adding that the board members need to consult with experts about that situation.
Neunder also pointed to a remark Tomasko had made about the fact that the exchange of water in Little Sarasota Bay was reduced by two-thirds after the closing of Midnight Pass.
The county is hoping that the Florida Legislature this year will grant it $1 million that can be used for studies to help determine how best to address the problems that have resulted the lack of Little Sarasota Bay’s direct connection with the Gulf of Mexico, Neunder told Tomasko.
On Jan. 27, state Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, submitted the request for $1 million, explaining — as required on the legislative form — that the funds would be used for design and permitting for the re-establishment “of a tidal connection between the Gulf of Mexico and Little Sarasota Bay.”
In response to a question on that form about “any documented show of support for the requested project,” McFarland’s answer was as follows: “Residents, businesses and property owners have expressed continual support for an effort to re-establish a tidal connection between the Gulf of Mexico and Little Sarasota Bay since it was closed in the 1980’s. Innumerable email and calls to the county and personal testimony at County Commission and State Delegation meetings can be documented to demonstrate overwhelming support for this project.”
During his April 11 remarks to Tomasko, Commissioner Neunder added, “We want to make sure that we’re going slow, and we’re relying on the experts” to obtain the best information possible to guide the approach the county will take.
Commissioner Mark Smith, who grew up on Siesta Key and still lives there, added that, as an architect, he has found that it is better to meet with the reviewers of a project early on, to get “a temperature for the room,” before embarking on a project.
Regarding Tomasko’s remarks about the structural aspect of restoring a tidal exchange for Little Sarasota Bay, Smith added, “I think [that is] fascinating.”
He, too, concurred, with the need to “follow the science,” adding, “I’d like to see [the solution] as sustainable as possible. I think some tidal action [in the area where Midnight Pass existed] would be helpful to [Little Sarasota Bay] …”
In response to comments from Chair Ron Cutsinger, Tomasko suggested the easiest approach to improving a situation is “to try to undo the dumb things that we did in the past.”
Moreover, Tomasko emphasized, the fact that Midnight Pass was closed by bulldozers, as documented in photos, instead of by a storm means Little Sarasota Bay is in a different position compared to other waterways. “This is one of the key points,” Tomasko said: “the human role in reducing that [water] circulation [in Little Sarasota Bay].”
The people who closed Midnight Pass had a permitting obligation to restore the waterway in another location, Tomasko pointed out, but they never created that channel.
“We’ve got a long road ahead on this,” Cutsinger told Tomasko.
Other details about Little Sarasota Bay
Early on during his April 11 presentation, Tomasko explained to the commissioners that the SBEP is a special independent district in the state, which the county helps fund. He has a 24-member citizens advisory committee, he added, plus a Technical Advisory Committee.
“We don’t have a dog in this hunt,” Tomasko said, referring to whether Midnight Pass is reopened. “We’re here to help you.”
Tomasko showed the board members a slide depicting Midnight Pass — or, Blind Pass, as it originally was known — from the time it first was documented, in 1888, to 1984.
Then, referring to a 2022 aerial image of Little Sarasota Bay, he noted that some residents have interpreted its appearance as “murky waters.”
Tomasko pointed out, “What I see there is a lot of mangroves and a lot of seagrass. … There’s [about 600] acres [of seagrass meadows].”
He added, “Don’t call this water quality horrible and talk about it like the bay is dead … That’s not true, and it’s not helpful.”
In fact, Tomasko stressed, “Little Sarasota Bay is in better shape than it was five years ago,” though its condition is not as good as it was 10 or 15 years ago.
The nitrogen load in Little Sarasota Bay appears to have peaked in 2016, he said, attributing that largely to efforts approved by county commissioners to improve water quality countywide. For example, Tomasko noted that the board members are committed to converting all three of the county’s major wastewater treatment plants to Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) status, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
He also noted that 2018 was “the peak year for wastewater overflows.”
A federal lawsuit filed by the Suncoast Waterkeeper, a nonprofit based in Sarasota, and concurrent action by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to enforce a Consent Order with the county, detailing steps necessary to prevent sewage spills, prompted the commissioners seated in 2019 to agree to undertake a number of steps, including the AWT conversions.
Algae in Little Sarasota Bay has been reduced 50%, he added.
Today, Tomasko continued, the high tide in Little Sarasota Bay is predominantly caused by the Big Sarasota Pass/New Pass complex. Since the closure of Midnight Pass, Tomasko said, “Roberts Bay now is better flushed” with tidal exchanges, while Little Sarasota Bay has little flushing.
Further, the creation of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) in 1964 “might not have had that big [of an impact on the water circulation],” though he said that needs to be verified. He emphasized that Midnight Pass was open for 20 years after the ICW was completed.
Further, Tomasko said, biologists working for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) sample the fish populations in the bays, including areas of Sarasota Bay. The 2020 data show that Little Sarasota Bay was second only to Palma Sola Bay for the number of fish, he told the commissioners. “There are plenty of fish in Little Sarasota Bay,” he summed up those findings, “but they’re small. Little Sarasota Bay’s a nursery.”
If people want to catch big fish, he pointed out, they need to care about little fish, first.