Soon, the resident otters of Red Bug Slough will have a cleaner place to play.
As part of a $1 million habitat restoration project, Sarasota County will restore portions of wetlands within the 72-acre preserve. The restoration project will remove invasive flora, create additional habitat for birds and wildlife — including the otters — and improve the flow and natural filtration of water in a drainage basin that ultimately feeds into Sarasota Bay and was partially dredged in the early 1900s.
“Red Bug Slough is a 600-acre drainage basin,” said Matt Preston, project manager with the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), which is funding about half of project’s cost. “That much acreage drains into Phillippi Creek, then Roberts Bay and, eventually, into Sarasota Bay.”
Although the project won’t ensure 100% pristine water, it will improve water quality and flow.
“It is the type of restoration project that can make an impact,” Preston said. “If we get enough of these projects, there is a cumulative effect.”
Another nearby waterway-improvement project is under way in Phillippi Creek, and a $2.9 million project was recently completed at Alligator Creek.
Restoration work at Red Bug Slough is slated to start this summer and will take about a year to complete.
The price tag of the project outlined in the 2013 fiscal year includes $691,000 for construction, with $500,000 available from SWFWMD, and the matching remaining funds borrowed against penny tax revenue.
"Environmental projects do create jobs, but that (knowledge) doesn't trickle down to the public," said Sarasota County Environmental Specialist Kris Fehlberg, who oversaw the design aspect of the Red Bug Slough restoration.
For Fehlberg, there are fewer projects like the Red Bug Slough restoration within the county than she would like to see. The county budget is still tight from the recent recession, although grant money, such as SWFWMD reserves, remains available.
But the main goal of the project, Fehlberg said, is to improve the water quality of the particular wetland system, which includes planting a diverse set of native aquatic flora.
Adding native aquatic plants that filter water is cheaper than artificial solutions and can remove up to 99% of heavy metals from the targeted waterway, Fehlberg said. Those metals include nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous (phosphates), which have been connected to elevated levels of Karenia brevis, the organism that causes red tide.
“The funny thing is that nature has been doing it for a long time,” said Fehlberg. “And we’ve found low-cost methods that make a huge difference.”
The contractor chosen for the project, which targets 10 acres within Red Bug Slough, will do all of the planting and replace aged or corroded pipelines that connect the wetland with other systems. When the project is complete, water will flow slower through Red Bug and receive more exposure to aquatic plants that will filter the water.
The new flora will remove phosphates from stormwater runoff while slowing the water’s flow into the preserve, as well.
The county wants the species planted by the contractor to be diverse so the new plants are more likely to survive, Fehlberg said.
The number of otters, owls, osprey, wood ducks and red-shouldered hawks and herons living in Red Bug Slough could increase because of that diversity. In other areas the county has restored, there have been between 50% and 100% increases in the number and diversity of species in the defined boundaries, Fehlberg said. The increase starts with the new plants and moves up through the food chain. As insects proliferate in the restored habitat, birds have a greater amount and wider variety of food, and predators have more prey to pursue.
County Parks and Recreation manager George Tatge said informal restoration efforts are more frequent countywide and less expensive than those projects at Red Bug Slough and Phillippi Creek. These include county staff removing invasive species, such as Brazilian pepper, from the mangrove system at Turtle Beach Park.
It’s not known if the wetlands targeted by the Red Bug restoration will return the preserve to its pre-developed state — which is the definition of a formal restoration — but Tatge said the thoroughly planned and coordinated Red Bug restoration is “absolutely exciting.”
Inside Red Bug Slough
Formerly known by some locals as Skeeters’ Drain, Red Bug Slough preserve, nestled south of Proctor Road and west of Beneva Road, is one of several recently acquired natural lands in Sarasota County. The land was purchased in 2000 and 2001 through the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program, with funding assistance provided by Florida Communities Trust. The preserve is open to the public, with access at 5200 Beneva Road.