Building a new habitat best idea for Port Manatee

February 7, 2014 

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Built out of dredge material from Port Manatee over a three-decade period, Manbirtee Key is a potential site for piling up more dredge material taken out of navigation channels. The material would be added to the island in a new "cell," rather than being piled on top. PHOTO PROVIDED

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Only a few years away from a blunder that sent polluted water into Bishop Harbor, Port Manatee now has the option of improving the environment. Another dredging project could provide material to create new habitat for birds and other creatures -- an excellent idea that makes sweet lemonade out of sour lemons.

The port made a strategic mistake by allowing the dredging earth from the deepening of Berth 12 to be dumped into phosphorgypsum stacks at Piney Point.

The contractor failed to secure the containment liner, and 170-million gallons of mildly radioactive water gushed into Bishop Harbor in 2011.

Now, Port Manatee must deal with another dredging project, this one to return the navigation channel into its docks back into the proper depth to allow ships to drop anchor and unload and load cargo valuable to the county's economy.

This will be the port's first shipping channel project since 2009, and officials expect to dig up about 400,000 yards of bay bottom from the 2.9-mile lane. Where should the port put that?

The port could sell dry dredge material for some 35 cents a pound for use in construction projects, as is common now. But another option would make amends for the 2011 fiasco.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Port Manatee poured dredge out in the water near the edge of the harbor -- building an island.

In a partnership with the Audubon Society of Florida forged in 2003, the two planted vegetation and built a bird sanctuary. The 60-acre Manbirtee Key is very aptly named.

So build more habitat.

Port Deputy Executive Director Dave Sanford indicated that possibility in an interview with Herald business reporter Matt M. Johnson. Sanford has been in discussions with Mote Marine Laboratory over the idea, telling the Herald:

"The motivation would be to create additional habitat."

That would be our strong recommendation. The Port Authority will be considering the options, with plans to adopt one of the options by this coming summer. The temptation to dump the new dredge material onto a dry-land facility and sell it off after drying is great, for sure. Port revenue would benefit.

How does that weigh against new habitat? As Manatee County continues to grow and build on farmland and other places vital to native wildlife, we think the answer should be to create a new home for mother nature.

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