Wood stork a key character in stormwater drainage project’s delay at Siesta Public Beach

A male wood stork spreads its wings. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Steve Hillebrand

A type of stork not known to local birdwatchers as a regular resident of mangroves near Siesta Public Beach nonetheless is proving a key factor in holding up final permits needed for the stormwater drainage project at the beach, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

And that permitting holdup probably will make it impossible for the county to complete the project in time to utilize grant funding assistance from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the project manager told the News Leader this week.

To obtain up to $975,000 in matching funds from SWFWMD, Curtis Smith said, county staff would have to have the stormwater project completed and all the paperwork turned in to the water district by March 31, 2013.

SWFWMD would pay for up to 50% of the cost of construction, Smith told the News Leader in June; $975,000 has been set as the maximum amount.

With construction estimated to take seven to eight months, Smith said, “we’re trying to let folks know that we’re in the crunch now” with the grant situation.

“The consistent message … is it’s unlikely an extension would be granted” for the funding, Smith said. “State agencies have their budget pressures just like everybody else … so there’s been greater scrutiny applied to the grants.”

Smith added, “We’re not alone in this type of situation.”

If the county loses the SWFWMD grant, Smith said, “I don’t know what the financial vehicle [will be]” to undertake the $1.5 million project.

“We are looking at our options,” Smith added.

The issue probably will be discussed during the County Commission’s Aug. 20 workshop on the 2013 fiscal year budget, he said.

Commission Chairwoman Christine Robinson told the News Leader said she could not comment at this point on what action the commission might take. She planned to question staff closely about the stormwater project during that budget workshop, she said.

“We’re still in our discussion process with the [water] district,” Smith said on July 25.

The next meeting scheduled between county staff and SWFWMD representatives is in late August, he added, after the commission budget workshop.

Siesta Key Association President Catherine Luckner told the News Leader July 25 that she hoped the County Commission would consider using surtax revenue set aside for the Siesta Beach park improvements if the county had to make up the funding difference for the stormwater project.

The latter, she said, “has to be done first.”

Concern over wood storks

After Gulf & Bay Club board members protested the original plans for the placement of the new stormwater pond at the beach, Smith said, county staff redesigned the site plan to alleviate those concerns. However, that necessitated going back to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a new permit.

“Standards and rules change over time,” Smith explained. In this case, when the county submitted its new permit application, the Corps raised concerns about how the project would affect wood storks, Smith said.

The Corps has identified this part of Florida as “a core foraging area for wood storks,” he said.

County staff is being required to undertake an analysis to demonstrate that adequate mitigation can be provided to ensure the project will not harm the area’s wood stork population, he added.

Luckner, who is an avid birder, told the News Leader she had spotted wood storks resting in mangroves on the bay side of Siesta Key, “but it’s an unusual sight to see.”

Neither she nor any other regular birder with whom she had spoken ever had seen a wood stork in the mangroves near the beach, which is the area of focus for the Corps, she said.

The delay in the start of the stormwater project “has been a real disappointment,” Luckner added.

Preventing beach closures

Almost exactly a year ago, then-Project Manager Spencer L. Anderson told this reporter staff had to start the stormwater project by December 2011 to keep the SWFWMD grant. The water district subsequently allowed staff more time to redesign the location of the stormwater pond and obtain the necessary permits.

Smith earlier told the News Leader it is difficult to put a timeline on permitting processes.

The project was designed to prevent future Siesta Key Public Beach closures linked to high bacteria level counts resulting from runoff.

After working with stakeholders, county staff was able to obtain a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to construct a new pipeline to discharge the runoff into the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’ve confirmed with [DEP] that that [permit] still applies,” Smith said.

An alternate plan, which a number of Siesta residents protested, called for the discharge of runoff into the Grand Canal.

The need for the stormwater drainage project was underscored last week by the closure of three other county beaches because of elevated levels of enterococci (enteric) bacteria discovered in routine sampling by the Sarasota County Health and Human Services Department.

In response to a query from former Siesta Key Association Director Nancy Wilson, Chuck Henry, executive director of that department, wrote in a July 20 email that a water sample taken at Siesta Key Beach on July 16 tested high for bacteria, indicating possible poor water quality, but three separate samples taken to confirm that finding had indicated good water quality.

Therefore, he wrote, no beach advisory was issued for the Siesta Public Beach, although Turtle Beach, further south on the island, was one of the beaches closed temporarily.

Beach project on SKA agenda

Luckner told the News Leader Smith is scheduled to be a special guest at the SKA’s regular meeting on Sept. 6. At that time, she said, he will provide an overview of the plans for improvements at the Siesta Public Beach Park, including the stormwater project.

She is encouraging all interested Siesta residents to attend that meeting, which will be held, as usual, in Room F of St. Boniface Episcopal Church at 5615 Midnight Pass Road.