Twenty-year Longboat Key resident Maureen Merrigan noticed something troubling during the last full moon as tides flowed out of the Beer Can Island lagoon: It looked almost landlocked.
“You could almost see the land all the way to the dock at near Lands End Drive,” said Merrigan, who lives on North Shore Road and grew up on Bradenton Beach.
Fortunately for Merrigan and the more than 25 residents she has rallied to action, the town has contracted with coastal engineering firm Taylor Engineering to study the feasibility of dredging island waterways. While the company has focused on the Key’s 60 canals, it is also planning to analyze that channel as part of a roughly $90,000 contract in the next three months.
“I think we’re already at the point where the channel that now goes under the bridge is so shallow it’s probably questionable for boat access at low tide,” said Cliff Truitt, the firm’s chief engineer. And while he doubts the lagoon could become completely cut off from tidal activity, it’s trending toward closing off all watercraft access.
Robyn Doran remembers when she was able to navigate a 22-foot vessel into the lagoon after she purchased her condo on North Shore in 2010. Now, she says, a Jon boat captain would have a difficult time passing over the growing shoal.
“From our perspective, it would be a loss of property value if we get landlocked,” Doran said.
Merrigan and several North Shore residents are meeting with Town Manager Dave Bullock this week to discuss options for the lagoon. But because of seagrass beds within the area, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection will require heavy permitting and oversight of any type of project, Truitt said.
“It’s certainly a matter of serious concern to me,” said Commissioner Ed Zunz, who lives in Lands End. “I think everybody is concerned and would like to keep that open, but the FDEP is so controlling in what can be done.”
Ironically for Merrigan and Doran, it’s just that ecosystem they say they would like to protect by opening Beer Can Island to more water flow from the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding bays. Doran said she has seen manatees grazing in the area and regularly sees mullet jumping.
“It’s almost like a fish circus in there,” Doran said. “We would just hate to lose all that if it were to become totally landlocked.”
Public Works Director Juan Florensa said the town dredged less than 5,000 cubic yards of sand from the lagoon in the 1990s and placed the fill at the north end of the island. Sand from recent town beach projects near North Shore Road has been migrating toward the inlet.
“That is not good for the environment and for the habitat that is there,” said Florensa. “There is an argument to be made it’s not just a navigation issue.”
As with any barrier island and inlet system, the spit at the north end of the island has ebbed and flowed for the last 100 years.
A regional model study performed in 2011 states that when the pass opened in 1880, north of a previous inlet location, the south end of Anna Maria Island began to erode, while the sand moved and began to form at the north end of Longboat Key.
The north end of Longboat Key began to erode in the 1950s, and Beer Can Island began to break away from Longboat Key.
However, by 1970, sand bypassing was re-established, and Beer Can Island became reattached to Longboat Key.
Truitt said he doubts the inlet will fully close but thinks dredging could be feasible.
“A channel that might be permitted would not be the biggest, widest or deepest that people like to see,” Truitt said. “But it’s possible some improvement could be made through that area while avoiding seagrasses.”
Truitt said his firm will conduct the study over the next four months, and residents will be informed in public meetings that have not yet been scheduled.
“It’s such a gorgeous, gorgeous area,” Merrigan said. “It would be a disaster if it closed.”