Army Corps Dredges Up New Concerns

| February 1, 2014

Guest Commentary by Jono Miller

You’ve no doubt heard about the City of Sarasota’s plan to dredge sand out of Big Pass and place it on Lido Beach.  Since Lido Beach has been nourished many times before, some people assume the controversy is just another one of those overblown Sarasota snit-fits that can be lumped in with the Ringling bridge name, roundabouts, and sidewalk dining.

But this sand-shuffling proposal is unlike any that has come before and involves four completely new aspects, any one of which is deserving of a lot more public and professional scrutiny.

Never before has a Lido Beach project invoked hurricane protection, involved placing rock groins in a County Park, successfully targeted the Big Pass shoal, or required a 50-year contract with the federal government. And every earlier attempt to take sand from Big Pass has been rebuffed as a result of technical uncertainty and public outrage.

Incredibly, this radical proposal has been in the works since 1999, more or less out of public view. It was back in 2002, more than a decade ago, when it was determined the project was “technically sound, environmentally acceptable and economically justified” – a startling finding that appears to ignore the technical, environmental, and economic changes of last dozen years. Not to mention the decade-long Save Our Sand campaign that should have made it abundantly clear that messing with Big Pass was not acceptable to the local community.

The first big difference is that what everyone assumes is a simple, recurring beach nourishment is actually, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers, a “Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project” that involves building a 1.6 mile long, five-foot high artificial dune that is somehow supposed to provide protection from a 20-year storm. The dune component means they are looking for more than three times as much sand per mile as a nearby nourishment project taking place right now on Anna Maria – and the result will be more than five times the per mile cost the Anna Maria work. The Corp’s public presentations have not included any detailed information about how this dune is supposed to work, but since Lido and St. Armands are islands, no dune is going to keep Hotel lobbies or St. Armand’s restaurants dry if the tide comes up. Is the Corps actually proposing to provide hurricane protection or is this just a way to charge for more beach than is needed?

Of course, the entire project is premised on the idea that Lido Beach is critically eroded and needs major attention and its true — the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has a document stating that all Lido Beach is “critically eroded.” But that is based on information from four years ago, and since DEP claims that over 98% of the county’s beaches are critically eroded, they have instead eroded the meaning of the term. Walk Lido Beach for yourself and see what you think. Many people are of the opinion that North Lido has seldom been wider.

At the south end of their proposed project, they intend to place three rock groins, with two going in Ted Sperling South Lido Park. It came as a surprise to the Corps in the late Fall when someone broke the news that South Lido is a County, and not a City, Park. Until then, there had been no involvement with County Parks regarding whether massive groins were needed or wanted in this park noted for its dynamic wild stretch where the Pass meets the Gulf. Go figure.

The Big Pass Shoal is an enormous sand bank that trails a mile and half from the south end of South Lido Beach Park and supplies sand to Siesta Key. It may be the only place left in the county that could be considered pristine. In the five hundred years since Europeans showed up in Florida, there has never been a need to mess with the shoal, but the Corps proposes to change all that. Not even the most sophisticated computer models can predict with confidence what would happen if they take more than a 27 million cubic feet of sand from the shoal. And once they start taking sand, it is hard to believe it will be off limits for additional raiding for other projects. In fact, other needy beaches have already been mentioned. Once this project is approved, how could others be denied?
One of the most eyebrow-raising aspects is the requirement to sign a fifty-year contract with the Feds for millions of dollars and they intended to do it with no public hearings! Local governments don’t frequently sign multi-decade contracts and for good reason. To make matters worse, Katrina has shown the Corps has immunity from lawsuits, so if anything goes wrong on Siesta, don’t bother taking the Corps to court.

Sadly, the Corps posture has been that we have to either accept what they are proposing, or they will be “forced to go back to square one” – implicitly threatening that no sand would be forthcoming. This play-by-our-rules-or-we-are-taking-our-basketball stance is not helpful and starts sounding like a federal version of a protection racket — we agree to their terms and they’ll take care of us, otherwise.

So there are several reasons to be questioning this proposal –whether you are concerned about wasting tax dollars, affecting Siesta beaches, unintended consequences, navigation, government accountability, the character of South Lido, or how we might best prepare for hurricanes, this is a project that would benefit from more scrutiny.  At a minimum that would involve an improved public process with public hearings. There should also be independent analysis by experts unconnected with the dredging industry of the Corps assumptions and claims. Ideally, it would result in a more responsive public process that involved all stakeholders in a quest for the most effective way to keep Lido Beaches and St Armands Circle viable without creating unwarranted risk. Because it is hard to imagine a greater risk than a fifty-year contract with an unaccountable agency for a project all concede is “upstream” of Siesta Key and the number one beach in the nation.

Jono Miller is an environmental educator and activist and former County commission (2006)

NOTE: On January 15, 2014, the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, in a unanimous decision, joined the Siesta Key Association to oppose the dredging of the Big Pass Shoal.

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