Big Pass dredging then and now

| June 1, 2015

Convergence of events halted plans to dredge Big Pass in early 90s
By Roger Drouin  

Twenty one years ago—long enough for many to forget—three events converged to kill plans that would have scraped sand from Big Pass to stabilize two local beaches.

A pivotal lawsuit filed and won by the Siesta Key Association (SKA), a key decision by state environmental officials, and a City Commission 4-1 vote stopped two separate proposals to use sand from several locales in Big Pass and a shoal off Siesta to shore up beaches on Venice and Lido Key.

In the first and larger proposal, Venice and the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to dredge sand from the pass and transport that sand down to Venice to be used during a renourishment. In the other project, a smaller amount of sand from the pass would be used to stabilize Lido’s shoreline.

Advocates involved in the battle to stop the dredging and elected officials at the time recall just how close these projects came to fruition. In fact, the effort to mine Big Pass for sand for Venice—initiated before the city’s plan to dredge—had already secured a permit from the state.

“We were worried about how this would compromise the shoal off Siesta that protects Siesta,” said Cheryl Duley, who was a member of the original Save Our Sand Committee, an ad hoc committee of the Siesta Key Association. The Save our Sand group was formed in response to the threat of a dredged Big Pass.

“It was a joint effort with all the associations on the Key,” Duley said about the Save our Sand Committee.

“If we had done nothing, if the committee had not been formed, they would have dredged,” Duley told Siesta Sand. “I have no doubts in my mind that would have happened.”

The battle over the Venice project was so contentious it resulted in one county commissioner losing their seat. “I would say one lesson is that people become really passionate about their beaches,” said Nora Patterson, former county commissioner and a city commissioner in the early 1990s. “Watch out!”

Fast forward ahead

Now—two decades later—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is plowing ahead with its permit application for an ambitious Lido Beach Renourishment project, which includes plans to dredge more than 6 million cubic yards of sand from the pass over 50 years.

Patterson expects discussions to get more heated as the current Army Corps proposal moves ahead. Patterson would like to see the Corps’ pull back on its 50-year plan and try for a smaller, one-time project on Lido that would be closely monitored before subsequent renourishments, and more dredging of Big Pass, was pursued. “I have enormous respect for the Army Corps, but they have made mistakes in the past. And it seems like we are part of a pretty large experiment,” said Patterson, who believes a smaller, trial project to stabilize Lido’s shoreline, similar to previous renourishments might alleviate some concerns about the Army Corps’ plans.

A procedural point

In the early 1990s, the threat of a lawsuit, and then the successful execution of legal action, was the most instrumental in stopping plans to dredge the Big Pass for sand to be used in Venice.

The SKA and its ad hoc committee raised about $250,000. “It all went to legal fees,” Duley said.

The SKA hired the renowned Tallahassee firm of Holland & Knight, which in turn hired a team of coastal experts who unearthed several faults with the plan to dredge Big Pass. David Aubrey, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Robert Dolan, a professor at the University of Virginia found that the impact of dredging the shoal of Big Pass would pose an unacceptable risk to Siesta Key and the downdrift beaches. That study, conducted in 1994, showed that the ebb shoal in Big Pass was the foundation for the stability of sand formation to the south, including Siesta Key. In part, the plan by the Army Corps of Engineers to mine Big Pass for Venice lost momentum because of the researchers’ findings.

The study by the scientists from Woods Hole and the University of Virginia also pointed out that the granularity of the sand on Venice did not match the sand in Big Pass. “The issue of the granular sand came about during the lawsuit because the study brought that to light,” Duley recalled.

Ultimately, the FDEP reversed course on its permit for dredging because the sand source didn’t match the beach sand on Venice.

But it wasn’t an environmental or sand-compatibility issue that swayed a judge. Before FDEP rescinded its permit, a procedural point convinced a judge to rule in favor of SKA in the legal petition it filed, recalled Catherine Luckner, vice president of the SKA and a member of the effort to stop the dredging in the 1990s.

The case came down to “procedural” issues, Luckner said—specifically the lack of public notices sent out to those who could be impacted by the dredging. The judge ruled the project could not continue.

The judge’s ruling combined with the FDEP decision halted any possibility of dredging Big Pass. “DEP came out and said they [Army Corps] had to go back on it anyway because the sand source didn’t match,” Luckner said.

The ruling in 1994 could also become a reflection of forthcoming trouble for the Army Corps as it pushes ahead its current Lido beach project.

Recently, Luckner has drawn attention to missteps by the Army Corps when it comes to communication with the public. The Army Corps did not advertise its April 15 public workshop in time, and when it finally did an online link to information, the link did not work. “It is kind of hard to have a public meeting when people are not educated on what you are talking about,” Luckner said.

Although Luckner is not personally advocating for legal action at this time (other Siesta advocates are, however), she believes these kind of missteps could once be used once again in a legal arena or the FDEP approval process to halt the current Lido Renourishment project.

Luckner also said the Army Corps should have extended the public comment period because of the improper notification, but thus far it has not done so. “These are the little things. They sound small,” Luckner said. “But because they have to do with due process, they are built into the process. It is an important part of the process.”

FDEP officials noted the insufficient public notice too, telling the Army Corps in an April 15 official Request for Additional Information that the federal agency had had to advertise public notices for the public.

The sand fight in the city

While Siesta advocates were fighting the Venice project, in the city of Sarasota, commissioners debated whether to take sand from Big Pass for the renourishment of Lido. At the time, Patterson voted against taking sand from Big Pass.

The then-city-commissioner felt that state funding would be at risk if the city pursued the politically contentious issue of taking sand from Big Pass. “Both Venice and the city of Sarasota planned to use Big Pass shoal,” Patterson told Siesta Sand. The county had voted to do it. And up to that time, the city had backed it as well.”

In light of the SKA lawsuit and strong opposition on Siesta to the Venice project, Patterson determined that if the city went for Big Pass sand, too, there would be no way it would get the funding from the state. The entire project would be politically unfeasible.

To illustrate the opposition at the time, Patterson described a “rather long and contentious” meeting when the Save our Sand group along with Jack O’Neil—who was instrumental in the movement to protect Big Pass sand—argued for the city to pull back on its plans to dredge sand from the pass.

The City Commission (with Patterson) voted 4-1 against dredging Big Pass.

“Ultimately we did get the [state] money later for our renourishment, and we used offshore sand, and it went fine,” Patterson told Siesta Sand. “The state funding picked up half the tab.”

“At the time, the state did not have a real fund for beach renourishment, but they had some money they were willing to allocate,” Patterson added.

At the county level, the “sand issue” was strong enough to propel Jack O’Neil to beat an incumbent and take a seat on the county commission. As a former chair of the Siesta Key Association, he was instrumental in the “Save our Sand” movement. But concerns about cost of incorporation killed the idea before it got to the referendum stage.

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Expert says modeling behind pass dredging is flawed
By Roger Drouin

Panelists spoke to a full audience at St. Boniface Episcopal Church. Photo by Roger Drouin.

Panelists spoke to a full audience at St. Boniface Episcopal Church. Photo by Roger Drouin.

When a coastal geology expert hired by critics of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to buffer Lido Key’s beaches with sand dredged from Big Pass spoke at a meeting last month, he spent several minutes talking about the modeling used by the Army Corps.

The modeling used is essentially flawed, explained Robert Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.

According to Young, the same exact method of modeling cited as support for the Army Corps conclusion that dredging Big Pass will have no negative, unintended consequences had been described as flawed by the very federal agency that used the model to prove it’s point, Robert Young told a full audience at St. Boniface Episcopal Church May 11.

The method of modeling is called GENESIS, and it is commonly used by coastal engineers to check to see what the potential impacts of a beach project could be on nearby coastal areas.

The problem is that GENESIS is not “well-suited” to determine the impacts of coastal projects on inlets (such as Big Pass) or environments close to inlets, Young said. The Army Corps has even stated in permit applications this shortcoming of the modeling. But nonetheless the agency still uses the modeling to “add confidence to its revised plans,” Young said.

Young was one of the panelists to speak at the meeting hosted by the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, Siesta Key Association, Siesta Key Village Association and the Siesta Key Cond Council. The other models used by the Army Corps are also flawed, Young told the packed community room at St. Boniface, because data entered into the models does not replicate coastal weather such as storms, which happen over time.

“The project engineers cannot predict with any degree of certainty at all the impact of the proposed dredging,” Young said.

Some of the models are interesting but “in my opinion,” Young said, “they cannot be used for project design.”

Young’s presentation was the focal point of the meetings, which included criticism of the project from other speakers, including: Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2) Chairman Peter van Roekens; former Sarasota County Environmental Services Director Rob Patten; and environmental advocate and former director of the Environmental Studies department at New College Jono Miller.  Laird Wreford, Coastal Resosurces Manager of Sarasota County presented a neutral stance.

Young also referenced a 1994 study by David Aubrey, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and Robert Dolan, a professor at the University of Virginia.

“Siesta Key’s stability and low erosion is linked to Big Pass shoals,” Young said. “The study showed the shoals play an important role in sheltering Siesta Key.”

Phil Gilbert, an Illinois judge and seasonal resident on Siesta Key, spoke during the question and answer session at the May 11 meeting.

Gilbert said as a judge who has worked on cases involved federal environmental agencies, he believes the best route for advocates is to continue to push for the Army Corps to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is more comprehensive than the Environmental Analysis (EA) that the agency has been willing to undertake.

“There are only two reasons why the Army Corps would not want to do an EIS: the time it would take; and they might not like the results of it,” Gilbert said.

If advocates do take legal action, Gilbert suggested, one option is to ask a judge to order the Army Corps to conduct an EIS before any aspect of the project continues. “A federal judge cannot just tell the Corps its idea is flawed,” Gilbert said. But it is plausible that a judge would require the agency to conduct and submit an EIS to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA’s descriptions of the two types of environmental studies illuminates just how different the analyses are.

An Environmental Analysis is shorter: “Since the EA is a concise document, it should not contain long descriptions or detailed data which the agency may have gathered.”

The Environmental Impact Statement is more involved. It “is a detailed analysis that serves to insure that the policies and goals defined in NEPA are infused into the ongoing programs and actions of the federal agency,” according to the EPA.

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