Sarasota County has been selected to receive a $14.5M grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Transformational Habitat Restoration and Coastal Resilience Program, for the Alligator Creek Stream Restoration Project.
As part of Sarasota County’s ongoing commitment to improving water quality, the Sarasota County Board of County Commissioners will consider the grant allocation in the next few months. The NOAA grant funding, in addition to county’s current commitment of $1.4 million, will allow the county, project partners, and stakeholders to mitigate the past negative impacts of the urbanized Alligator Creek and restore vital ecological habitats.
“The Alligator Creek Stream Restoration project is an outstanding opportunity for Sarasota County to demonstrate that stream restoration via natural channel design is feasible in Florida,” said Sarasota County Public Works Stormwater Environmental Utility Manager Amanda Boone. “The restoration extends beyond the stream, restoring wetlands and upland habitats. Fisheries are an important part of Florida’s economy, and our restoration effort is intended to bolster habitat for important fish species.”
Designated as a Florida Department of Environmental Protection aquatic preserve and Outstanding Florida Water, Alligator Creek is an essential 11-square-mile tidal creek that serves as an urbanized drainage basin, flowing into Lemon Bay and is responsible for more than 20% of the water drainage. Historical nutrient loading and hydrologic changes in the 1940s, such as deep excavation and channelization, disrupted the natural water flow and reduced the creek’s connection to the floodplain and nearby wetlands. This, in combination with the creek’s steep-sided banks causing erosion and sedimentation, has degraded crucial benthic and fish habitats. Additionally, invasive vegetation and bank erosion have impacted the vitality of marine life, birds, and native animals that rely on the ecology and salinity of Alligator Creek.
The Alligator Creek Stream Restoration Project involves reconfiguring approximately 42 square acres of corridor and stabilizing banks to improve water quality and fisheries habitat. It will also prevent further erosion, reduce nutrient and sediment pollution, restore a more natural hydrology, and reconnect to adjacent wetlands. Another element of the project will focus on removing stream barriers to increase access to low-salinity habitats, which is important for fish nurseries and provide safe harbor during toxic red tide algal blooms. Habitat restoration will increase species diversity and stability including recreational sport fish species such as red drum, snook, sheepshead, and mullet, as well as the endangered smalltooth sawfish.
“This grant is a major success for realizing the county’s mission toward improving area water quality and creating flood resiliency. We’re so grateful for the continued support from county administration and the board of county commissioners,” said Sarasota County Public Works Director Spencer Anderson. “A special thank you to our project champions and supporters including U.S. Congressman Greg Steube, the Coastal and Heartland National Estuary Partnership, the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida, the Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, and of course our local volunteer organizations and nearby residents.”
In partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, a major component of the Alligator Creek Stream Restoration Project, is their monitoring and sampling of key fish species such as snook, tarpon, and red drum, in addition to providing design input to advance fish habitats. Mote began identifying and counting these species in the stream in 2021 to gather baseline data before the project’s commencement, and will continue to assess the effects of the stream restoration on fish health through ongoing monitoring before, during, and after construction.
“Mote is thrilled to apply our scientifically-driven monitoring and sampling techniques to assist in the restoration of Alligator Creek, and we’re looking forward to these efforts resulting in a positive response in the fish communities and ecosystem function within the creek,” said Dr. Nate Brennan, Mote’s Alligator Creek restoration project manager. “Tidal creeks host a nexus of ecological interactions involving water chemistry, nutrient assimilation, and sediment dynamics, and are inhabited by a variety of fish species that serve as crucial water quality indicators, as they are sensitive to temperature, potential hydrogen (pH), salinity, and dissolved oxygen. The health of these fish populations is a direct indication of the creek’s water quality, which is why we’re focusing our efforts on monitoring these species.”
Mote has implemented technology to track fish movements, growth, and survival, by implanting a passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag prior to releasing them back to where they were collected. Further downstream, a solar-powered detection station picks up a signal from the PIT tags when a fish swims over it, allowing Mote scientists to collect data to learn more about fish habitat use, directional migration patterns, and survival rates for different species, sizes, and life stages.
“We’re proud to continue working with our partners at Sarasota County on restoring Alligator Creek,” said Ryan Schloesser, program manager of the Fisheries Ecology and Enhancement Program at Mote. “Mote’s main goal in this project is to monitor the health of the creek’s fish population before and after the restoration efforts, which will help us understand how well the creek can support fish in its current state, and we expect the data we collect to show that the restoration provided a more productive habitat for the long-term health of these fish populations.”
In addition to the habitat restoration and fish monitoring, local communities will benefit from increased protection from flooding, reduced park maintenance costs, and enhanced recreational opportunities, which are part of the project scope. Riparian buffers along lands adjacent to the approximately 3.4 miles of Alligator Creek, between U.S. 41 and Center Road, including Woodmere Park, Woodmere Park Addition, Alligator Creek Conservation Area, and three small pocket parks/preserves, will help reduce flooding and stormwater runoff impacts.
The design portion of this project was awarded to WSP, previously Wood Environment and Infrastructure, by the Sarasota County Board of County Commission on Sept. 28, 2021, and is funded in part by Sarasota County penny tax revenues. Project design is planned for completion this fall and construction is estimated to begin in 2024.
Learn more about Sarasota County’s water quality initiatives at scgov.net/waterquality or call 311. For information on Mote’s fish monitoring program, contact Mote public relations at 941-388-4441.