Quite often the Army Corps of Engineers are only too happy to give out permits allowing environmental rules to be bent or broken, but here the Corps is balking a bit, although leaving the door wide open.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Santa Rosa County dredging plan is not environmentally sound, federal agency says
Environmental scientist Bill Young does not look favorably on Santa Rosa County plan to transplant sea grass in Santa Rosa Sound
A federal agency says a current Santa Rosa County proposal to dredge channels in Santa Rosa Sound to give nearby residents better boat access fails to meet environmental standards.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued its opinion in an eight-page letter sent to the county earlier this month. It marks the latest chapter in an issue dating to the early 1990s on whether Santa Rosa Shores residents should be allowed to create three navigation channels to serve the subdivision while transplanting native sea grass to a nearby section of the Sound.
The Corps says the county’s application for a permit on behalf of approximately 230 Santa Rosa Shores residents is not in compliance with Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for the impact on the underwater habitat.
Is there still time to adjust?
However, the Corps’ ruling is not final, and it does give the county time to modify its plan.
“Considering the scope and effect of the proposed project on existing resources and the analyses and information SRC has provided to date, my staff would be recommending that the permit be denied,” wrote Clif Payne, chief with the Corps’ North Permits Branch of the Jacksonville District, in a May 7 letter addressed to since-retired Santa Rosa County Administrator Tony Gomillion.
“I bring this to your attention to allow you the opportunity to modify your project plan to reflect an alternative that would further avoid and minimize impact to the aquatic resources or to add to our record whatever additional information you feel is relevant … ” Payne’s letter continued.
Questions, possible alternatives linger
The letter asks the county to address issues of incomplete information from previous Corps requests dating to 2014 and 2016, analysis that fails to consider available alternatives for dredging and unanswered questions on the need and purpose of the project.
Payne wrote the Corps will hold the county’s application for 45 days, pending a response. The letter also offers the county an opportunity to meet with Corps staff to address the topics outlined in Payne’s letter.
Dan Schebler, who replaced Gomillion as county administrator, said in an email Thursday morning that he is still familiarizing himself with the issue. He received the letter late last week because it had been sent to his predecessor.
The 231 Santa Rosa Shores residents want to dredge 2 aces of seagrass to increase the depth of the neighborhood channels, allowing for boat access to the Sound during low tide.
With the seagrass currently in the channels, the water level is too low for neighborhood boaters to navigate to and from the Sound.
In search of permits
Santa Rosa Shores resident Jeff Pate, chairman of the homeowners’ association canal committee, declined to comment on the Corps’ letter until the homeowners worked with consultants on a response.
Pate said the consultants helped the homeowners secure a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in January 2016.
Pate added the FDEP and the Corps must issue permits for dredging to go forward.
FDEP denied a previous application about a decade ago, and the Corps also denied a previous permit in 2007.
‘It almost never works’
Late last year, Pate told the News Journal the neighborhood’s residents don’t want to upset the ecological system in the Sound, and that’s why the permit requests narrowing the channel and relocating the seagrass to an adjacent site.
But the transplant plan doesn’t sit well with other environmental scientists, including Ken Heck, a research scientist and marine biologist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and the University of South Alabama. Heck, who submitted comments on previous permit applications related to this project, said the seagrass, or turtle grass, “is the best of the best” and the most significant of its kind in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
Heck said what makes the grass important is that it’s known as a “nursery ground” for a variety of sea life such as shrimp, fish and crabs. These species settle into the grass beds for the first year of their lives where they find shelter “to escape things that like to eat them.”
“It shelters a tremendous number of animals,” Heck said of the Sound’s seagrass.
Heck added the seagrass has been declining dramatically in the Gulf of Mexico, but Santa Rosa Sound retains a healthy population and that status would be jeopardized with transplanting.
“It almost never works,” Heck said. “When you dig it up, it’s not like sod in a lawn. This stuff is sensitive. They propose to plant another species, but it doesn’t provide the same kind of habitat. Destroying that because people like to get a boat on a plain more quickly doesn’t seem to be a good trade off.”
Anne Delaney can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8522.