Who’s to blame for the non-existent beach at the north end of the island?
Town staff has been questioned by residents and commissioners whether the reason the north end has no sand is because the town manager and his staff didn’t do enough in the last couple of years to protect the area.
But Town Manager Bruce St. Denis, Public Works Director Juan Florensa and Coastal Planning & Engineering President Tom Campbell all give a two-word answer when asked what caused the erosion: Mother Nature.
St. Denis, who has monitored the town’s beaches since 1997, puts the blame solely on recent hurricanes, a flurry of strong frontal boundary systems and nearby Longboat Pass, which keeps moving further and further south.
And the town has the pictures and aerials to prove that a white sandy beach has existed at the north end of the island from the Broadway beach access to the North Shore Road beach access.
“In 2006, we had a beautiful beach there,” Florensa said. “But storms in 2007 took it away.”
The town, St. Denis says, even placed an additional 150,000 cubic yards of sand in that area during the beach renourishment project of 2005-06, because it knew it was an erosion hot spot, susceptible to many variables, such as storms and the pass.
But that sand is gone and all that’s left is a 12-foot fence and signs that warn beachgoers the beach is closed.
And, now, when high tide occurs every day, the Gulf of Mexico comes within a few feet of North Shore Road.
Campbell told the Town Commission last month that the majority of the island’s 11 miles of beach is holding up well — except for the area from Broadway to North Shore Road.
Campbell reports the town has lost 76 feet of beach near Gulfside Road and almost 80 feet of beach near North Shore Road.
In one year, from 2008 to 2009, Campbell reports that the town lost 148,000 cubic yards of sand along the island’s entire beach.
The last beach project in 2006, of which 82% of the sand has been retained, was a success, Campbell said.
But residents of Longbeach and 360 North condominiums don’t see it the same way.
“We have seen significant erosion around Longbeach condominiums and North Shore Road,” Campbell said. “And we haven’t seen any slowdown of erosion in that area.”
Sand one day, gone the next
Walking the beach with St. Denis, he explains the north end of the island had so much sand in 2003 that there was no need to place additional sand in the area.
But in 2004 and 2005, a flurry of hurricane activity, including Hurricane Katrina, took away the sand while storms churned northward, even though the island received no direct hits.
To correct the massive loss of sand, the town restored the north end’s beach in its 2005-06 renourishment project, and placed 150,000 more cubic yards of sand there than needed to counteract higher than normal erosion rates in the area.
But within one year of the sand placement, 63 feet of the average 125-foot-wide beach in that area disappeared.
And major storms that churned through the Gulf since the town’s last beach project, including Hurricanes Fay, Gustav and Ike, caused even more sand loss.
“In four years, we have lost all the sand,” Florensa said. “Those storms are responsible.”
St. Denis says the town has always known the north end is a high-erosion area.
“We wouldn’t have placed more sand there than usual during the last renourishment if we didn’t know that,” St. Denis said.
The town, St. Denis says, is not complacent about the lack of beach on the north end.
In fact, St. Denis, Florensa and Campbell call the north-end erosion problem a top priority.
Town staff is working to receive a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) this summer, which would allow the town to rebuild the entire beach profile, or a 200-foot-wide beach, that has been lost from Broadway to North Shore Road.
St. Denis says the permit has a 50% chance of being approved and is more hopeful than he was a few weeks ago that the sense of urgency the town is presenting to the state might give the project a green light.
If approved, St. Denis said the project would buy the town a year’s worth of sand and time before the 2011-12 beach renourishment project begins in November 2011.
But if that project is not approved, St. Denis said the town must move forward with its $2.3 million project for four breakwaters, which are rock structures that would break the majority of the waves 220 feet from shore and protect the north end from future erosion.
The breakwater project has received criticism from local environmental groups such as ManaSota-88, Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash and residents of Longbeach.
“We are worried this Band-Aid approach will affect sea-turtle habitats and increase coastal erosion,” said Glenn Compton, who heads ManaSota-88, a local environmental group.
But St. Denis says it might be the last resort to protect the north end.
“If the sand project isn’t permitted, we need to move forward with that project,” St. Denis said. “Clearly the preference is sand, but if we can’t do a sand project, I feel we should continue to pursue the breakwaters. I’m not comfortable waiting two years without doing anything.”
The town is also working to receive a permit to extend a town seawall past North Shore Road to protect the road and town utilities in the area.
And, the town is also working to receive a permit for another beach project this summer that would place 7,500 cubic yards of sand from Broadway to the Longbeach Periwinkle condominium.
The sand would be placed on the dry beach, and the town hopes the sand would move north by means of the wave currents and build a beach just south of the Periwinkle building.
“It’s another project that buys us some time until the large sand project begins in November 2011,” Florensa says.
The town has also placed 600 cubic yards of sand three times just north of North Shore Road to help protect the road from the encroaching Gulf.
Florensa is in the process of receiving another emergency permit to place sand there for a fourth time.
“As soon as we place the sand there, it disappears,” says Florensa, who is hopeful the warmer weather and disappearing cold fronts will allow the sand to stay in place longer.
The problem’s beginning
Dave Reploeg, a 33-year resident of Longbeach, remembers a beach just south of North Shore Road that was extremely wide.
The beach, which has received renourishments every five to eight years from the town since 1993, has accreted sand on its own in the past.
“We had no dramatic changes in sand losses when I first moved here in 1974,” Reploeg said.
But Reploeg recalls dramatic sand losses after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stopped dredging Longboat Pass and placing sand on the north end.
“That, in my opinion, was the beginning of our problem,” Reploeg said.
Florensa agrees that the cessation of the dredging was a problem.
“When the Corps of Engineers stopped dredging the pass every five years in 2000, we lost sand that was placed there on a consistent basis to counteract erosion,” Florensa said.
The Corps of Engineers stopped the dredging to save money, with the belief that Mother Nature should create the channel it wants.
But that thought process, town officials believe, could result in dire consequences for the island’s erosion problems.
“That decision, we believe, creates a problem for us because the channel is getting closer to the north end,” Florensa said.
The town, Florensa says, is having discussions with the Corps of Engineers and the West Coast Inland Navigation District to express its concerns.
And a two-year, $244,371 Longboat Pass Inlet Management Study that began in February might be the information the town needs to show state and federal officials that the migration of Longboat Pass is a problem.
It’s the hope that the study, for which the town and Manatee County are splitting the bill, will explain why both Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island see dramatic sand losses on the tips of their islands near the pass.
Compton thinks the pass study will be extremely valuable.
“This is the long-term approach that needs to be done so we understand the volatility of the currents that exist in that area,” Compton said.
In the meantime, Longbeach Association President Robert Appel said his association’s residents, along with the residents of neighboring 360 North (which doesn’t have a seawall protecting it from the encroaching Gulf waters), can work with beach engineers each association has hired to protect their properties from the encroaching saltwater.
Appel said his association is working to make repairs to its seawall and making sure it can protect the property until the sand can be restored.
Said Appel: “All we can do is wait for the sand and hope we can survive till then.”
Contact Kurt Schulteis at [email protected].