Tuesday, June 9, 2015

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.

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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