By Hannah Wallace
Nearly 40 years on, Midnight Pass remains one of Siesta Key’s most hotly contested topics. The latest development in the saga: A new nonprofit organization dedicated to funding hydro-engineering research that organizers believe will demonstrate an effective approach to reopening the pass.
Pending 501c3 designation, the Midnight Pass Society 2 Inc. will begin accepting donations for the cause. The organization is the brainchild of Realtor Scott Lewis; local restaurateur Mike Evanoff will serve as president.
Lewis, a Sarasota native, draws his passion in part from his childhood in Coral Cove in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
“The waters were so pristine,” he said. “We used to go camping and seine shrimp. People would go oystering, getting oysters right out of the bay. They’re not there anymore.”
Lewis, like many people who support reopening the pass, argues that the ecosystem of Little Sarasota Bay and the surrounding waters suffers from a lack of saltwater inflow. His Facebook group, OPEN MIDNIGHT PASS NOW, has garnered nearly 3,000 followers. Commenters echo phrases like, “The bay has died” and “Let it breathe.”
Supporters of opening the pass also claim that, in the absence of an outlet between the intracoastal and the gulf, a severe storm could cause intracoastal waters to force their way through the Key at another spot, potentially devastating Siesta properties.
The history of the Midnight Pass controversy usually begins in the early 1980s. It was a naturally occurring waterway separating Siesta Key from Casey Key. Historic charts show that the location of a pass shifted back and forth, both north and south, for decades in the 19th century. Storm surge from a hurricane in the 1920s further affected the pass, more or less shaping the waterway as people saw it for the next 60 years.
But in 1983, Midnight Pass had drifted so far north that it began encroaching on homes built on south Siesta Key. Renowned artist Syd Solomon and neighbor Pasco Carter owned two of the southernmost homes on the key. In October of 1983, Midnight Pass was so close to Carter’s property that it destroyed the foundation of his pool.
Solomon and Carter teamed up to ask the county and state governments for permission to “move” the pass farther south. In December of 1983, with emergency permits granted by the government, the existing pass was filled with sand.
Because it was deemed an emergency, no studies were conducted on how best to manipulate the waters in the area. Engineers then attempted to dredge a new pass at a safe distance from the properties, but the natural flow of the water quickly filled the man-made waterway with sand. Several more dredging attempts were made, always with the same result.
While some abandoned the pass as a lost cause, others like Lewis continue to push for a solution.
Lewis argues that the problems with Midnight Pass were actually first triggered in the 1960s, when dredging by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fundamentally changed water flow in the area. Lewis cites two “diverging currents,” one flowing north and the other south, which historically balanced the flow and helped to keep the pass open and stable.
The 1960s dredging and sand-relocation projects in the intracoastal eliminated one of those currents, and Midnight Pass began traveling north. Twenty years later, Carter lost his pool and Sarasota lost Midnight Pass.
Lewis now argues that previous attempts to dredge a new pass didn’t take these hydraulic forces into account.
“We understand why the previous efforts failed. They were too aggressive,” he said. “We’re trying to do it the natural way. We’re working with the way the bay used to be.”
Lewis said that funds from the Midnight Pass Society 2 will go directly toward hiring hydraulics experts and coastal engineers to perform studies that will demonstrate the viability of a new pass, if done correctly. He also hopes recruit volunteer experts, if possible, who can contribute to these studies.
But the failure of previous dredging attempts is just one counterargument to a reopening project. Lewis and other environmentally minded supporters say that the absence of saltwater in the area has destroyed the area’s natural ecosystem and made it untenable for most fish and coastal wildlife.
But opponents suggest that the area — which includes the Jim Neville Marine Preserve — has now shifted into a whole new type of ecosystem, one that should be preserved and protected as-is.
Lewis remains adamant. He considers the closed pass an ongoing environmental disaster that will only continue to get worse.
“We can’t do this for another 20 years. It’s going to be a cesspool,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone’s kids.”