U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to take 1.7 million cubic yards of sand from Big Pass, instead of 1.2 million, expert witness testifies

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By Rachel Brown Hackney

   Since the Lido Key Renourishment Project formally was unveiled to the public in September 2013, representatives of the City of Sarasota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) routinely have referenced a range between 1.1 million and 1.3 million cubic yards of sand as the amount targeted for removal from Big Sarasota Pass and the pass’ ebb shoal.

In reality, the figure is 1.7 million cubic yards, based on documentation associated with the joint city/USACE permit application submitted to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), a coastal geology expert has told a Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) judge.

“The permitted amount would be a phenomenally large amount of sand,” Robert Young, a Western Carolina University professor and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, testified on Dec. 14 during a hearing regarding challenges to DEP’s plan to issue the permit for the Lido project.

“That would be close to the largest project in Florida history,” Young added of the USACE’s design for the Lido renourishment; an even bigger initiative than one undertaken this year by the City of Miami. “It would be significantly larger, by three times,” than any previous Lido renourishment, he said. Such initiatives date back to 1964, he noted.

The original figure he saw in the project files, Young told the court, called for slightly more than 900,000 cubic yards of sand from the pass and the shoal.

   As part of the work of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, Young explained, he and his staff track every beach renourishment project undertaken in the United States, including all of those in Florida. In fact, Young noted, the U.S. Geological Survey recently provided funding to the program to update its database on Florida initiatives.

   Yet another expert witness, Mark Edward Luther, president of Marine Science Associates in St. Petersburg, testified that the USACE relied on its proprietary, two-dimensional modeling in designing the Lido project. Yet, he explained, more modern technology called LIDAR produces vastly different numbers regarding the transportation of sediment in the coastal system that includes Big Pass. One USACE figure was off by 495%, he told the court.

Young and Luther were witnesses for the Siesta Key Association (SKA) and Save Our Sarasota Sand 2 (SOSS2), two nonprofit organizations that filed petitions with the DOAH in January to try to stop the dredging of Big Pass. Siesta residents Michael Holderness, a property owner and real estate manager, and Diane Erne are petitioners in the case, as well, with the SKA and SOSS2, respectively.

Along with the SKA and SOSS2 attorneys, counsel for the City of Sarasota, the USACE, DEP and the Lido Key Residents Association participated in the hearing that began on Dec. 12 in Sarasota. (Administrative Law Judge Bram D.E. Canter had agreed to allow the Lido residents’ group to participate as an Intervenor.)

And while the parties had expressed worry in a pre-hearing motion that the six days set aside for testimony would not be sufficient, the proceeding concluded a day early, on Dec. 18.

In a Dec. 19 email response to a SNL question, Kent Safriet of the Tallahassee firm Hopping Green & Sams, the attorney for the SKA, wrote that he has no idea when Canter will make his decision known. The parties “will submit proposed recommended orders around late January (this date is a moving target),” he added; then, he believes the judge will take up to 45 days to issue his order.

“I do feel very encouraged by the facts that we were able to produce, and that there are clearly some discrepancies in the [materials],” SKA Vice President Catherine Luckner told SNL. “We did not find any documents that [said the USACE and DEP] were evaluating Siesta Key as being at risk,” she added. Yet, research and expert testimony made it clear that not only is Lido Key critically eroded, she pointed out, but so are the northern and southern ends of Siesta Key.

   In a Dec. 19 newsletter to members, SOSS2 Chair Peter van Roekens wrote that both the SOSS2 and SKA attorneys “presented what we believe is a very powerful case as to why the permit should not be granted.”

Effects on fisheries

   Yet another expert witness for SOSS2 and the SKA, R. Grant Gilmore Jr., president of the Vero Beach consulting firm Coastal and Ocean Science Inc., testified that the Lido permit application “basically ignored” three sections of the Florida Statutes that say the impacts of a proposed project on endangered and threatened species should be considered. “[Fish] were not mentioned at all or considered at all in the state [permitting] documents,” he added.

One species that would be affected by the dredging of Big Pass, he continued, is the smalltooth sawfish, which is listed as “critically endangered.”

Big Pass also is essential habitat for so-called “hard-bottom species,” he pointed out, such as grouper and snapper.

   Further, Gilmore said he believes the destruction of seagrass, as a result of dredging in Big Pass, also would disrupt the spawning of the spotted sea trout. That is “a major fisheries species around the state of Florida … There is some concern for its decline in a number of areas around the state,” he added, as linked to loss of seagrass.

“If we don’t have the spawning and nursery sites,” Gilmore continued, “we don’t have the fishery. … There’s no question about it.”

Gilmore was a professor at various universities from 1972 to 2002, including the University of South Florida and the University of Miami. He told the court that research he has undertaken included “probably the most intensive single study done of seagrass fisheries in the state of Florida.”

   Asked about the Perico Preserve seagrass mitigation site in Manatee County, Gilmore explained that that is affected by a freshwater source — the Manatee River. Research has shown that the spotted sea trout is far less likely to spawn in such areas, he said, and spawning sites are “critical for the survival of the species.”

The same seagrass species may be grown at Perico Preserve as those that would be destroyed in Big Pass, Gilmore pointed out. “However, you didn’t ask the fish where they want to settle.”

The Perico Preserve is 16.6 miles north of Big Pass, according to documentation Martha Collins of the Collins Law Group in Tampa provided as exhibits in the case. Collins is the attorney for SOSS2.

“That’s a considerable distance for many of these organisms [in Big Pass],” Gilmore said. “If we’re talking about the very young stages of some of these … it’s like another planet to them.” A number of species in Big Pass will not make that migration, he pointed out.

   Additionally, Gilmore reiterated a point SKA attorney Safriet made in his opening statement. “Big Sarasota Pass has never been dredged,” Safriet told the judge. “[That] is kind of amazing,” Gilmore said, given the fact that dredging has been commonplace in almost every other channel in Florida.

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