ST. PETERSBURG — Designers of the Lens, the proposed replacement for the Pier, haven't given up on an underwater feature.
Originally, they proposed a pristine underwater garden in the waters of Tampa Bay. That is, until marine scientists ridiculed the plan.
Now a new idea has emerged. Offered now is a feature with limestone rock structures atop the old Pier's cut-off pilings, meant to be a habitat for marine creatures. Acknowledging that water clarity will limit views of the action below, designers have introduced underwater cameras, hydrophones and other technological devices. Closer to shore, the effort that's being touted as an estuary restoration project, education outpost and tourist attraction will include planting sea grasses.
The project will cost $1.5 million, with a hoped-for federal grant pitching in $950,000. The rest will come from the $50 million Lens budget.
Like the old, the new plan has its share of skeptics.
"I support education and information about the bay. It's kind of apple pie and mom, but my suspicions are that it probably doesn't have much value to improving the ecology of Tampa Bay," said Walter Jaap, a retired Fish and Wildlife Research Institute scientist, now a consultant and honorary professor at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science.
Environmental activist Lorraine Margeson, a vocal opponent of the Lens, is "ragingly against this restoration plan."
"It is a ludicrous idea to create or suggest creating a habitat restoration area, where at the same time, recreational fishing and motorboating are part of the plan," she said.
Mike Connors, St. Petersburg's public works administrator, disagrees. Boaters, scuba divers and snorkelers coexist in the Florida Keys and boats anchor "in and on top of reefs," he said. "We are not proposing that. We have a marina area that is separate and distinct."
It would be unfortunate, he added, if opponents derailed the city's hopes for federal funding.
And while the city's grant application says goals for the underwater feature were developed "following an initial outreach effort to local marine science experts" from institutions including USF's College of Marine Science, associate dean Gary Mitchum downplayed the university's collaboration.
"We weren't involved in the proposal in any formal way," he said. "The college was never asked to review this. We have the expertise and generally we are happy to help with this sort of thing."
Peter Clark, president of Tampa Bay Watch, whose mission is to protect and restore marine and wetlands environments, said his group helped write the application for the grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"We know that if you build these types of structures at the right elevations in the bay that you can grow things like oysters, soft corals, barnacles and other attaching organisms," he said.
"This is not hard coral reef that you would expect in the Caribbean or the Florida Keys, but these are the types of hard bottom and reef communities that are native to Tampa Bay that can be constructed as a showcase."
The grant application proposes building reefs with "natural limestone rubble" from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Tampa port expansion project.
Jaap scoffs at the premise. "Most of the rock in the bay that we have encountered is very soft stuff," he said.
The grant also states that the Lens will reduce shading of the bay bottom by "approximately 60 percent," advantageous to sea grass, which needs light.
Margaret "Penny" Hall, the top sea grass expert at the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, addressed the plan for sea grass restoration.
"There are currently bands of sea grasses, approximately 30 meters wide, growing close to the shoreline both north and south of the pier approach," she said in an email.
While removing the current Pier approach will allow more light, the sea grass area would be increased only by about one-third of an acre, she said. "This is not a large amount of additional sea grass habitat, but of course, better than nothing."
Clark said underwater lighting, projected to cost $80,000, would attract fish.
"It's more of a tourist-aesthetic thing versus something that's helping the habitat be more productive," Jaap said.
He's similarly unimpressed with the plan for cameras, hydrophones and other technology, saying they would require too much maintenance.
"I think TV cameras under the water have got limited value,'' he said. "You're not going to see much. When the water is very murky, you won't see anything."
The underwater feature will be educational, Clark said.
"Tampa Bay has a great story to tell,'' he said. "It's one of the ways we can showcase restoration to a wide audience, to the visitors and community."
Jaap is not optimistic about the grant.
"This is primarily a tourist attraction," he said. "It just seems to me that the grant agencies are going to review this with a critical eye to make sure it's the best way to spend these resources."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.