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Pinellas County’s beach erosion woes continue

Bill DeYoung

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County public works director Kelli Hammer Levy on Indian Rocks Beach, Dec. 21. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

When angry tides and churning waves roared ashore during Hurricane Idalia in August, the frenetic influx of water devastated Pinellas County beaches. County official suggested that some north Pinellas municipalities – where the damage was most severe – lost as much 50 percent of their beach sand.

With traditional assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Pinellas beaches are “engineered,” meaning the county maintains the amount of sand, its distribution and its form. Sometimes this means monitoring and reinforcing the natural dune line that protects homes and other property along Gulf Boulevard, the last line of defense between the roiling Gulf and expensive beach property,

The winter storm front that blasted through Dec. 16 and 17, while not nearly as powerful as Category 4 Idalia, undid months of sand replenishment work – approximately $26 million worth, funded by tourism development taxes, also known as the “bed tax” – that had begun in the aftermath of the destructive hurricane.

Many of the “new” dunes, some as high as 10 feet and painstakingly re-planted with sea oats and other native vegetation, were literally cut in half, the sand collapsing and returning unceremoniously to the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’ve had storm events over the last three decades that have eroded away the beach, but never made it to the dune,” public works director Kelli Hammer Levy said Thursday, standing by a decimated dune line on Indian Rocks Beach. ”Idalia is the first storm that we’ve had in decades that actually made it to the dune. That’s where you never want the storm to get to.”

The berm – the “flat” part of the beach, where visitors sit, lay, play and enjoy the sun – is generally what takes the pounding from storms, Levy said. “The bigger issue, in an engineered beach, is the wave action doesn’t make it to the dune. (But) Idalia was really devastating to our entire engineered beach.”

Joanne “Cookie” Kennedy, Mayor Commissioner of Indian Rocks Beach. ‘This is a safety issue,” she said. “We want to keep people off the dunes so we can grow them. This project has been put in place as an emergency measure until we can have a total beach nourishment.” Photo by Bill DeYoung.

She was speaking alongside Mayor Commissioner Joanne “Cookie” Kennedy, whose message was that 25 of her city’s 27 public access points are open for the upcoming holiday weekend. County workers had carefully cleaned piles of sand – deposited by the December storm – from them.

Both Kennedy and Levy, however, stressed that the cliff-like dunes can be unstable, and warned the public that they should not be climbed or walked on.

The county keeps an up-to-date website on its “emergency shoreline restoration project,” with a map detailing the progress in each municipality: Click here.

“We’ve lost a lot of height and a lot of width on the beach,” Levy said sadly.

According to the county site, the areas included in the project are St. Pete Beach, Sunset Beach, Pass-a-Grille, Treasure Island, Madeira Beach, Indian Shores, Indian Rocks Beach and Belleair Beach.

The county, and beach residents, are in a staring match with the Army Corps of Engineers, which has been responsible for “beach nourishment” – replacing sand that’s eroded away – for three decades.

New this year, the government organization is requiring all beachfront residents to sign a “perpetual easement” agreement, allowing a small amount of public access to their property.

The residents balked at the request, and so far, the Army Corps has not blinked.

Meanwhile, the county’s work continues. “The biggest thing is getting the beach renourishment project under design, getting it through permitting and getting it constructed,” said Levy. “We really have to get that done as soon as possible.”

She believes it’ll be a two-year project.

“We know the Army Corps is not coming, so that means we’re going to have to do this. We’ve been planning for it for months, and in January we’re be kicking this project off and looking to expedite it as fast as we can.”

Erosion repair and dune reconstruction began in October in Pinellas County. Photo provided.

 

  

 

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    Nathaniel Sivin

    December 28, 2023at9:52 pm

    How is it possible to do an article on beach erosion and not mention the climate crisis. Paying to dump sand on the beach without addressing climate issues is throwing money away, almost literally. Wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge the overall crisis and write about that?

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