A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Top Ten Questions People Should be asking about the City of Sarasota Proposal to Dredge Big Pass

The City and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are very deep into a project that would involve removing sand from the Big Pass ebb tidal shoal and placing it on Lido Key. 

The Big Pass shoal has never been dredged, primarily because of understandable fears of impacting Siesta Key and Siesta Beach.

There are a number of significant unanswered questions. 

1 Where's the peer review?  The County's generic inlet management plan has been peered review but this particular proposal has not. Why not? There are a number of very technical calculations and assumptions involved that only independent experts can fairly assess. (And there's some question that the peer reviews cannot be interpreted as open-ended endorsement of what is being proposed).

2 Where's the public hearing/input? The Corps alludes to public hearings held in either 1999, 2002, or 2004. That's their excuse for not having hearings now. We need to get the records both of those hearings and how they were advertised. 

Beyond that, it is an insult to current citizens to allude to meetings held a decade or more ago as meeting the need for public participation. Not only has Lido Beach changed, but so has our understanding of rising sea level, the ability of the state and federal government to pay for such projects, and even the appropriateness of such roles.

While they are not hearings, there will be additional public meetings 5:00 pm Dec.5 at St. Boniface Church on Siesta Key, 9:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Harley Sandscastle and another meeting on Dec. 7th. Don't be taken in, these brief opportunities to speak are NOT public hearings. 

3 Where would the sand that will be filling the hole in the Big Pass shoal have gone without the project? We've known for quite a while that the sand comprising the emergent and submerged portions of our barrier islands is a system and that, because it is a system, adding or subtracting sand anywhere in the system inevitably has other effects. So, conducting a thought experiment, imagine the sand filing the hole created in the shoal. Now ask where that sand might have gone if the hole was not there. If the answer could involve Siesta Key beaches, (or even the shoal that extends offshore of Siesta Key) then you have to conclude the dredging could affect Siesta Key. 

4 How can the project claim to make a big difference for Lido Key and simultaneously make no difference elsewhere? We know the sand comprising the above and below water portions of our barrier islands are a system. The Corps is proposing to excavate 1.3 million cubic yards of sand. A cubic yard is twenty-seven cubic feet. So imagine a box a cubic foot in size and imagine a line of these boxes 35,100,000 boxes long -- if my math is correct -- that is a line of square foot boxes over 6,500 miles long. A lot of sand. And a big hole in the shoal. How can that NOT affect the system?

5 Where's the comprehensive coordinated gulf Shoreline management plan for all of Sarasota County? An adopted inlet management plan is not a Gulf shoreline plan. Allowing the City of Sarasota, Longboat Key, the City of Venice and the County to plan separate approaches to what is one system makes no sense. There are two reasons for this: this first is the interconnectedness of the sand system and the second is explored in 10 below. 

6 How can the Corps of Engineers claim this project is congruent with the state plan when the state plan calls for an offshore send source (and Big Pass is not such a source)? The Corps's representative quoted from a state plan that specifically mentioned "offshore sources". 

7 What are the implications of a 50 year commitment with the federal government? Embarking on this path is a deliberate decision to start an addictive behavior - sand addiction that is supposed to last half a century. I've been told on more than one occasion that commissions should not be binding future commissions. This is the ultimate future bind.

8 How might this project impact Siesta Key, Siesta Beach, and Sand Dollar Island? Put another way: What is the degree of risk  we are willing to accept that Siesta Beach will not be negatively affected? 20% 10% 5%? 

The Corps acknowledges only some "minor" increase in wave heights along Big Pass shorelines. But these reassuring statements are based on some of the most complicated computer models imaginable. That's why professional independent peer review is needed. 

9 Is Lido Key really critically eroded? When was that determination made? The City engineer referred to Lido Key as "fairly eroded". The Corps determined (at some point) that the beach is "critically eroded". Go out and look for yourself.

 Look at the end of John Ringling Causeway at the beach that is more than 600 feet wider that the worst we can remember. Look south of the Pavilion (photo below). And check out the giant plume of sand heading south from New Pass.

South Lido Key gives rise to one of the most dramatic shoals
in all of Southwest Florida.
Click on the image to enlarge.
Is Lido Key "Critically Eroded" as the Corps of Engineers claims?
Click on the image to enlarge.

10 What opportunity costs are associated with moving forward with this particular project? Choosing this project will indirectly and inevitably limit our ability to address other coastal challenges.  

We're talking about a project of only 1.6 miles costing an estimated $22.7 million-- so that would be about $14 million per mile. So approaching all 35 miles of county gulf shoreline in this manner, would cost about $490 million. Add a little inflation or cost overrun and we're talking $500 million. Since that is obviously not viable, moving forward with this project is an implicit choice to work on Lido Key at the expense of other beaches. 

Because of the important role Lido Beach plays in local tourism, that may be entirely appropriate. But the proponents should be frank with the rest of the county and let Longboat Key, South Siesta, Casey Key, Venice, Caspersen and Manasota Key know that this choice may well limit the supply of dollars to address other beach concerns.

While it is true that forgoing this federal money (62.4% of the estimated $22.7 million) will not free up those dollars for other local coastal concerns, it is also true that the federal government, state, and tourist development dollars are not inexhaustible. So while sand-shuffling on Lido is unlikely to affect a locale as far south Venice Beach, dollar-allocating conceivably could.

Bottom line: The City of Sarasota and the Corps are contemplating using stale decisions and an inadequate public process to initiate a fifty-year relationship with the federal government for a questionable project that  has not been peer reviewed and which involves tampering with a submerged supply of sand that has some not-completely understood relationship with the most valuable beach in the County. 

The Corps and the City are attempting to frame this project in the form of an ultimatum: either accept what we are proposing, or "we will have to go back to square one" and start all over. In other words, don't bother to question, improve, modify or adjust what we have come up with. If you do, the feds are taking their $14 million dollar basketball and going home. In light of the current beach condition, the lack of public participation, the absence of peer review, the failure to have a coherent, coordinated plan for ALL our beaches, and the insights we've gained in the last decade about the full scope of our coastal challenges, that is an option worthy of serious consideration. 


You might also be interested in an earlier post on the subject of the Big Pass Shoal.

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