With support now reaching the state level, county needs to decide on method of restoration
By John Morton
Shovels or pipes?
Now that Sarasota County commissioners are gearing up toward a commitment to improving water quality in Little Sarasota Bay, and well aware that the closing of Midnight Pass at the hands of their predecessors in the early 1980s is related to the issue, the question of how to restore the natural flow that once occurred between Siesta Key and Casey Key is front and center.
The county has asked for a $1 million commitment toward the process from Florida lawmakers, who are in session in Tallahassee right now with state Sen. Joe Gruters and state Rep. Greg Steube leading the way.
Locally, Sarasota County is pledging $1.6 million toward planning and permitting toward whatever game plan is set in motion. Clearing up the bay is one of the commissioners’ priorities for 2023, and new board members Mark Smith and Joe Neunder have been very vocal in support of the restoration of Midnight Pass. The commission, at its December retreat when goals set, acknowledged that the Midnight Pass issue was worthy of examination.
Spencer Anderson, the county’s public works director, asked the board at its Feb. 22 meeting how it would like to proceed. One method could be to install underground pipes that allow the Gulf of Mexico tides to once again reach the Intracoastal Waterway at that spot. Another would be to dredge the pass, restoring it what it once was. Two homeowners in 1983, worried that the shifting pass could ruin their homes, convinced the county to fill it in with sand and attempt to reroute it. Today, the area looks like continuous beach. Meanwhile, Little Sarasota Bay has become stagnate as the closest inlets for water flow are about 7 miles in each direction, creating what Anderson called a “null zone.”
“Tidal circulation is one of the biggest concerns, and lack thereof,” he said, noting that the closing of the pass diminished water exchange between the gulf and bay from 74% to 27%, according to a Sarasota Bay Estuary Program report.
Before suggesting possible plans of attack, the board agreed that David Tomasko, director of that program, should give a presentation on his thoughts regarding the pass and its role in water quality.
As for the potential placement of pipes to do the job, Smith doubted they’d hold up and would require constant maintenance. He said restoring the pass to its natural state “would be my ideal situation.”
Ron Cutsinger, the commission chairman, agreed. “They would have ongoing issues, all the time,” he said of a pipe system.
While both the commission and the Midnight Pass Society II non-profit group fighting for the pass’ restoration have placed little emphasis on how an open pass could also be navigable for boaters, as it was back in the day, Custinger said that added benefit would “be amazing – we desperately need that.”
Currently, boaters in that region can only enter the Gulf of Mexico from Big Pass to the north and the Venice Inlet to the south. That’s a 14-mile inconvenience.
Speaking of Midnight Pass Society II, the group on March 16 held a Zoom meeting with supporters to once again request volunteer help. It is looking to attend festivals and hold events in order to spread the word, Jamie Miller, a lobbyists for the group, said. A letter-writing campaign to key lawmakers and agencies is also in the works.
He also thinks that engineering on the possible restoration could occur as soon as 2024, with actual work in the sand and water beginning in 2025.
“Gruters expects appropriations to come to fruition in the governor’s budget,” Miller said of the state senator’s current efforts in Tallahassee. “This is the first time in 40 years that we’ve had the county and the (county) delegation (made up of four state lawmakers representing Sarasota County) working in parallel. There’s more political synergy than ever before.”
Midnight Pass Society II is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, meaning donations to it are tax deductible. To learn more, visit restore midnightpass.org.