Grant funds not available to help clean up Siesta Key’s Grand Canal

By Rachel Brown Hackney
SarasotaNewsLeader.com

In October, in conjunction with a presentation on potential ways to clean up the Grand Canal, the Siesta Key Association (SKA) board expressed hope that the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum could win a grant through Sarasota County to help with one or more initiatives.

Such assistance will not happen, Phil Chiocchio of the Forum told about 40 SKA audience members on Dec. 5.

Howard Berna, manager of the county’s Environmental Permitting Division staff, said no West Coast Inland Navigation District (WCIND) grant could assist with his proposals, Chiocchio added. The reason? “The Grand Canal is not a public waterway,” Chiocchio reported from Berna.

One hope Chiocchio had harbored was that WCIND money could be used to dredge a shoal in Roberts Bay, near the mouth of the Grand Canal, he reminded SKA members this month.

However, the shoal is too close to the canal’s mouth to be considered part of the public waters of Roberts Bay, he added. Thus, Berna had pointed out to him, Chiocchio indicated, that the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum should not even apply for a WCIND grant.

The mission of the multi-jurisdictional WCIND, its website explains, is “To preserve and enhance the commercial, recreational, and ecological values of waterways within the District we serve.”

In response to a SNL request for comments about what Berna told Chiocchio, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant reported in an email, “Public funds through WCIND to perform the dredge at [the mouth of the Grand Canal] are not likely available.” She added, “Mr. Chiocchio was advised of permitting requirements for a maintenance dredge at that location, which would include a Sarasota County [Water and Navigation Control Authority] WNCA permit, [a Florida Department of Environmental Protection] FDEP permit and possibly [a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] permit.”

In October, Robert Luckner, an SKA director, indicated he also felt a mini reef project for the Grand Canal would stand a good chance of winning WCIND support. However, Berna reminded Grant — which she conveyed to SNL — that county staff still is working with FDEP on how the state might exempt or permit the installation of such devices. (See the related story in this issue.)

On Dec. 5, Chiocchio reiterated some of the remarks about the history and health of the Grand Canal that he made during his October SKA appearance. The 9-mile waterway was dug in 1925, he pointed out. The flow of water is poor, he explained, and “sediment has been filling the canal with a jelly-like mud.”

He asked the audience members to imagine that the Parish Hall at St. Boniface Episcopal Church — where the meeting was taking place — was the Grand Canal. The height of the ceiling, he said, reflected the depth of the canal when it was built.

Then he asked them to picture the door as the mouth of the canal at Roberts Bay, with the shoal essentially keeping the door half closed. “We’re not getting much flow right now.”

Because of the lack of water flow and low oxygen levels, he noted, the canal is not a welcoming environment for sea life. “What I’d like to do is figure out,” he continued, “as a concerned citizen, with others, how we could turn the [canal] into something that could be as internationally famous as the beach right across the street.”

Referring to county staff members’ stance on permitting of mini reefs, Chiocchio continued, “I sent ’em a nice little letter, which I haven’t heard back from.” He pointed out in that letter, he said, that the Grand Canal was dug decades ago without any permit. He also suggested that the canal should be put under the auspices of the SKA.

During his Dec. 5 presentation, Chiocchio elicited plenty of laughter from the audience members, in spite of the seriousness of his topic. For example, he began his remarks by saying, “This presentation has not been vetted for accuracy because I’m just a concerned citizen …”

He also used stills from the opening credits of The Andy Griffith Show and stills from Seinfeld — including the latter’s famous episode featuring the “Soup Nazi” — to make many of his points.