Concerns mount over Big Pass dredging

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FDEP says Corps permit is incomplete 

Army Corps officials presented details of the Lido Beach Storm Reduction Project at a packed meeting April 15
Army Corps officials presented details of the Lido Beach Storm Reduction Project at a packed meeting April 15

By Roger Drouin

The planned South Siesta Beach Renourishment and the Lido Beach Renourishment are similar, in terms of the amount of sand included in the projects.

But the similarities end there.

The Lido Beach Renourishment involves additional elements—including the installation of at least two rock groins on Lido’s shoreline and the removal of 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Pass, which has never been dredged before—and, as a result, critics worry about the greater chance of unintended down drift impacts. Sand for the proposed South Siesta project, meanwhile, would be mined from submerged offshore deposits seven to nine miles offshore, and no groins are planned as part of that project.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials say they can’t find compatible sand that matches Lido Beach—except in Big Pass—and so the Corps is pushing ahead with permitting for its $19 million plan to buffer the beach.

At a packed, and at times tense, meeting last month, agency officials continued to defend the Lido project.

At the April 15 meeting, Project Manager Milan Mora and other Army Corps’ officials presented a second agency-conducted study they are using to conclude there is no evidence that dredging the sand from the pass would negatively change the shoal, alter wave action or sediment transport to Siesta Key. A few weeks earlier the agency also released its redesign of the project, removing the third groin from initial construction—although the additional groin could be added at any time, under the current proposal.

Despite the Army Corps’ redesigned plan for its Lido Beach Storm Reduction Project and its reassurances, several groups are concerned about the complex project and what it could do to the coastal region.

Boaters are worried about navigation. Residents on Siesta are worried about the down drift impacts on the Key. And environmentalists are worried about what impacts the changes will bring to a fragile ecosystem.

As the Army Corps applies for its permit with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, those critical of the project continue to voice their concerns. Supporters, however, say Lido needs a comprehensive approach to its erosion woes before a strong storm brings disaster to its shore.

In an interview with Siesta Sand after the April 15 meeting, Siesta Key Association Vice President Catherine Luckner talked about how she is constantly awed by the manatees eating seagrass in Big Pass and the other wildlife in the pass. She worries that plans to dredge the pass could “change the water quality and the environment in general.”

Environmentalist Jono Miller spoke at the packed meeting April 15, held at Sarasota City Hall. In the rush to get the project through, Miller and others contend that the Army Corps and the city of Sarasota (a joint applicant on the permit for the project) are not taking a look at all of the potential environmental impacts.

Miller called on the Army Corps to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which is more comprehensive than the Environmental Analysis (EA) that the agency has been willing to undertake. Miller highlighted ten different factors that should trigger an EIA, under federal guidelines. Those factors include uncertain and significant risks to the marine environment and adjacent public lands near the project area, factors that apply to the Lido Renourishment and dredging.

Luckner said the Army Crops “doesn’t seem to want to do an EIA.” Not only is the EIA a more comprehensive look at potential environmental impacts, Luckner said, but it also includes a process for “more mitigation” steps if the study finds potential environmental impacts.

Luckner also wants to know why the Corps hasn’t considered permeable, adjustable groins such as the ones used on the north end of Longboat Key. This type of structure could have less impact on down drift beaches such as Siesta Beach.

The SKA vice president toured the north end of Longboat with town officials and saw firsthand how the permeable groin works. “They look nice out there. There is a concrete walkway that goes out to them and the color blends into the beach,” Luckner said. “They are not a pile of rocks. It’s not the same kind of obstruction.” The groins, when adjusted according to a modeling system that has been used in Holland, can alter how much sand is prevented from moving down the beach.

Other critics have warned of legal action should the project move ahead. A group called Save our Siesta Sand 2 has been raising money to fight a legal battle.

Tensions mounted at the April 15 meeting when both sides debated the project.

Lido resident Brian Hunter noted how federal officials said Lido Key is one step away from disaster if there is a major storm, and delays could risk losing federal funding. “$16 million in federal dollars will not be there forever,” Hunter said at the meeting.

Federal funding has been earmarked, but not yet appropriated for the project.

Peer review underway

As the Army Corps and city of Sarasota forge ahead with their joint coastal permit for the project, Sarasota County is also proceeding with an independent analysis of several aspects of the Corps’ modeling and the overall project.

County officials last month had their first meeting with Atkins, a global design and engineering firm with offices in Sarasota and Fort Myers. The county has contacted Atkins to conduct the peer review.

Laird Wreford, coastal initiatives manager with Sarasota County, said he expects the firm to take about two to three months to conclude the review.

“We want to do a good, thorough job and explore as much as we can,” Wreford said. “But we don’t want something that can linger on for a lengthy period of time.”

Overall, the County Commission-approved analysis will look into ways the Corps project could impact the shoreline, marine ecosystems and waterways from Lido to Siesta. The peer-review study should be completed “sooner than later,” and the results will be presented to county commissioners, Wreford said. Local advocates are also awaiting the results of the review.

FDEP wants more information

FDEP—which has final say over the Army Corps joint coastal permit with the city of Sarasota—is the next big regulatory hurdle for the project.

And the state agency is not taking the permit application lightly.

In an April 15 letter sent to the Army Corps and City of Sarasota just hours before the public meeting, FDEP officials listed several reasons why the permit application received March 16 was incomplete. FDEP is requesting additional information from the federal agency.

The Army Corps now has to provide, among other information, a more detailed description of which borrow areas in the pass will be used during the initial and subsequent renourishments. The FDEP also wants to know exactly how much sand will be dredged from the borrow areas.

State officials are also requesting construction and design templates that minimize impacts to marine turtles, and are barring the Army Corps from dredging near 23 historic “anomalies” in the pass.

In an April 9 letter Luckner wrote to the state agency, the SKA vice president requested that permitting officials hold off a final decision on the Army Corps coastal permit application until the county’s peer review is complete and available for all stakeholders’ consideration.

Not just manatees

Kim Bassos, a senior biologist at Mote Marine Laboratory, said there are many other species of wildlife in the pass other than the manatees. “A lot of wildlife uses those shoals,” the biologist said.

Bassos is calling for the Army Corps to log base-line data that can be used later to show exactly what kind of changes the dredging has on the pass.

Debra Lynn-Schmitz, Executive Director of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce also spoke at the April 15 meeting. Lynn-Schmitz voiced concern about the economic impact that could hurt Siesta, in addition to possible environmental risks.



Siesta Sand
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