Quality sand hard to find? Try shells, rocks and oil
By AMY WIMMER and BILL ADAIR
When the Army Corps of Engineers pumped 1-million cubic yards of sand onto half the Pinellas shore in 1998, the mixture included jagged shells and rocks the size of tennis balls.
The rocks, which led one local official to liken the beaches to the surface of Mars, have created a new beachfront chore.
"A lot of people on the beach get the kids to pick them up," said Indian Shores resident Ed Burnett. "It's terrible on tourists' feet, and they have to wear shoes going in the water."
The Pinellas problem represents a growing challenge for the Army Corps of Engineers: finding good sand. With the amount of federal money spent on sand tripling since 1996, demand for beach renourishment has grown, but the supply of beach-quality sand has not.
"It's getting harder and harder in many places to find proper sand for these projects," says David Conrad, water resources specialist for the National Wildlife Federation. "The sources may be too far away."
The Corps, which oversees federal sand projects, usually gets the sand from the ocean floor near the beach being renourished. But as demand grows, the best reservoirs of sand are drying up.
Orrin Pilkey, a Duke University professor and longtime critic of federal renourishment projects, says sand is not easy to replace. Most sand that washes away from beaches never concentrates enough so it could be used again. Many locations rich with sand are now off limits because of environmental concerns.
Jim Terry, coastal coordinator for Pinellas County, says finding good sand is always an issue.
"It doesn't matter where you go to find the material, there's always something wrong," he says. "It may be too fine, it may have too much clay, it may have too much shell."
The government might get better sand from an inland source such as a borrow pit, but Terry says it would be difficult to transport a large volume to the Pinellas beaches.
"How would you like to have 400,000 trucks running through your back yard to dump sand on the shoreline?" Terry says.
That's just what the Corps is considering in Dade County, where offshore sand sources identified in the 1970s have dwindled to almost nothing. Options include hauling sand from inland or from the Apalachicola River in the Panhandle.
Jeff Stein, water resources project coordinator for Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the Apalachicola idea "is so ridiculous that it's the sand equivalent of towing icebergs to deserts."
Dade and Pinellas are not the only counties running into problems with replacement sand.
In Naples, Collier County spent more than $400,000 on machines that remove rocks from the beach. The machines dig 14 or 15 inches into the sand to sift rocks. But officials discovered that was only a temporary fix. Storms washed away the clean sand, exposing more rocks. The county ultimately decided to pay workers to pick up the rocks by hand.
In Indian River County on Florida's East Coast, officials found the fine sand from a renourishment project would cause difficult footing for sea turtles during nesting season. So they switched to a coarser sand, boosting the project's cost from $5.5-million to $9.5-million.
Closer to home, on St. Pete Beach's Upham Beach, the most recent renourishment project should have cost $2.3-million but ended up closer to $5-million after the dredging contractor struck oil at the bottom of Blind Pass Channel.
The oil, a remnant from a 1993 oil spill in Tampa Bay, turned the renourishment project into an environmental cleanup site.
In Longboat Key, where sand used in the most renourishment came from five to eight miles offshore, retired chemist Dave Bulloch conducted experiments to prove what he had long suspected: the replacement sand was mostly shells.
Cliff Truitt, a coastal engineering consultant who manages beach renourishment projects for Longboat Key, said the search for good sand is "the great paradox" of renourishment. The offshore sand is about 2 1/2 times more coarse than Longboat Key's natural sand, but that means it erodes more slowly.
"It stays there forever," Truitt said, "but people hate it."
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