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Date of Issue: March 30, 2005

Sandscript

Sarasota Bay Program contemplates independence

One of the region's leading environmental agencies may become independent later this year. The Sarasota Bay National Estuary Program hopes to free itself from governmental oversight Oct. 1 while continuing to receive federal, state, regional and local funds for the preservation and enhancement of the waters from Anna Maria Island to Venice.

The independent status would follow a similar step done by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program seven years ago, and apparently is a trend among the 28 National Estuary Programs in the United States.

The bay program was approved in 1988, and its first management plan ratified in 1989. The program receives about $1 million a year from the various governmental agencies with a mandate to control pollution threats and bring together the various agencies charged with protecting the waters.

Going independent will mean that the oversight committee - the policy committee - will remain basically the same, but will act as more of a board of directors. Membership in the policy committee includes representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Southwest Florida Water Management District, Manatee County, Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Mark Alderson, the executive director of the bay program since its inception, has said that he expects the policy committee to grow to include representatives from Longboat Key and Bradenton when the expected transition takes place this fall.

Sarasota Bay history
The following is an except from the 1990 "Sarasota Bay Project State of the Bay Report."

Sarasota Bay was formed about 6,000 years ago, during the most recent rise of sea level.

Sea level has fluctuated substantially during the past few million years in response to global climate changes and alterations in polar ice caps. Geologically, sea level in what is now the Sarasota Bay area has ranged from as much as 330 feet below to perhaps as much as 100 feet above the present level. As recently as 17,000 years ago, the shoreline of what is now the Gulf of Mexico was approximately 60 miles to the west, with sea level about 300 feet below present levels.

The first people to live in the Sarasota Bay area were prehistoric Indians whose ancestors migrated over the ice sheets from northeastern Asia. After thousands of years, these nomadic tribes reached the area that today is Sarasota Bay. The earliest traces of these ancient Indians, found near Warm Mineral Springs in southern Sarasota County, date back to about 10,000 B.C.

Sarasota Bay served as a primary waterway for these ancient tribes and their later, better-known descendants, the Tocobaga, Timucuan, and Calusa Indians.

Huge shell mounds, called middens, created by these ancient people are still visible on the mainland and the barrier islands surrounding Sarasota Bay. However, diseases brought to the New World by Europeans during the late 16th century destroyed these early Indian populations.

From 1700 to the mid-1800s, Cuban fishermen established fish camps, or rancheros, on the shores of the bay. Mullet and mullet roe were the principal products traded with Havana then, although drum, turtle and trout were also salted and shipped south. Seminole Indians, newly arrived in the Sarasota Bay area, also roamed the bay and coastal region hunting, fishing and farming.

European explorers used Sarasota Bay as a sheltered water link between Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay. An early homesteader to the region was Josiah Gates, who arrived in the Manatee River area in 1842w. A year later, William Whitaker sailed to the high yellow bluffs on the mainland further south and staked his claim to what is now much of the northwest portion of the City of Sarasota.

The slow trickle of settlers became a stream, and then a flood after World War II. Although fewer than 100,000 people lived in the Sarasota Bay area 50 years ago, that early settler population has now swelled to more than a half-million.

Coastal and bay development intensified from the late 1950s to the 1970, as hundreds of acres of bay bottom were dredged to produce waterfront lots. Canals were dredged and the spoil used to create subdivisions.

Bird Key, located between the city of Sarasota mainland and St. Armands Key, was once the location of one of the largest seagrass beds in Sarasota Bay. The area was bulkheaded with seawalls; dredges filled the area behind the seawalls with materials from the bay bottom, and the resulting expanded island was subdivided into single-family homesites.

During this period, the Intracoastal Waterway was dug to provide a deep, protected channel running the length of the bay and beyond. Dredge-spoil island were created throughout the bay during construction of the ICW, covering seagrass beds and changing water-circulation patterns. The natural shore was replaced by seawalls, to retain dredge-and-fill material for housing sites and to protect homes from storms and boat wakes. [A similar practice took place on School Key, now called Key Royale, in Holmes Beach.]

As this intensive development took place, natural porous surfaces were replaced by nonporous parking lots, roads and rooftops. Stormwater carried pollutants into the bay at increased rates. Septic systems were constructed and the runoff from their drain fields polluted the bay. As seawalls replaced the ecologically important mangroves and seagrass beds were covered by fill or died as a result of poor water quality, natural habitats declined.

The current environmental condition of Sarasota Bay could be worse, however, if federal state and local programs had not been enacted.

Manatee County began construction of a countywide water system in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, a mandatory sewer system was constructed, which has significantly reduced the number of septic systems in use in the county. Sarasota County enacted laws prohibiting dredging in the bay, slowing the destruction of seagrass beds. Cities and towns surrounding the bay passed bulkhead ordinances restricting indiscriminate construction of seawalls. The State of Florida, through the Department of Environmental Protection, enforced laws to protect Sarasota Bay's habitats, such as mangrove forests, and developed stormwater management programs.

Sandscript factoid
An estuary is a semi-enclosed body of water with free connection with the open sea, and within which seawater is measurably diluted by fresh water from land drainage.

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