BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) — The East Pass reopening study is in the spotlight, as county leaders held a public workshop on the project on Thursday evening.

It’s an issue that many residents in the community have been pushing for for years, after the last time the pass closed in the early 2000’s.

“If they can get this accomplished, we’re going to see our bay system come back to life,” said local fishing guide, Jason Leake, who was one of nearly forty people that came to the workshop to show their support. “I think this is the group, this is the time and this is what it takes to make something big like this happen.”

Other residents, past county leaders and environmental advocates came out to ask questions and express support for the project.

“This is going to help out bay system,” said Ken Karr, a past president of the group Friends of Grand Lagoon. “It’s going to help our marine life in there.”

“It’s just very encouraging to see it moving forward now,” said Stephanie Somerset, President of Friends of Shell Island.

The old pass naturally closed up after the St. Andrews Bay Pass opened in the 1990’s.

It was reopened for a brief experiment in the early 2000s, and residents said they saw a night and day difference.

“When the pass closed up, our water quality suffered,” Somerset said.

“It got dirty, the shellfishes dried up a little bit,” Karr said.

“If we can get this old pass to reopen and stay open, we’re going to see a healthier ecosystem,” Leake added.

County commissioner Bill Dozier said county leadership is working hard to prove that to the Department of Environmental Protection, and getting resident feedback through workshops like this is crucial.

“Having community involvement is very important in what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Dozier said it’s taken a long time to get to this point due to governmental permitting procedures, but they’re doing everything they can to reopen the pass permanently.

“Our goal as we move forward with it is to possibly get a dredge and do maintenance dredging on it as needed,” he said.

Leake said it’s not only a good idea for the environment, but also for the local economy.

“If we can clean these waters up, people are going to want to come here,” he said. “The fact is people keep moving here, so the more people we have on the water, the prettier the water needs to be and we need to work to protect it.”

They said there is a small group of people who oppose the project due to environmental concerns when it comes to dredging out the pass. However, Somerset said the environmental benefits of reopening the channel outweigh those concerns.

The DEP study will take about three years to complete, before the county could possibly get a permit to move forward.