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Base seeks artificial reef to curb erosion

The 800-foot-long reef, which would absorb energy from incoming waves, must first be approved by the state.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 6, 2002


Overseas, military officials are beating back waves of terrorism.

Closer to home, they're trying to stymie waves, period.

Wave action in Tampa Bay is eroding the southeast shore of MacDill Air Force Base, exposing the roots of oaks and mangroves and threatening an American Indian burial site, according to a permit application submitted to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

To defend the beach, the base wants an 800-foot-long artificial reef made from 910 concrete reef balls. It would be anchored 200 feet offshore and would absorb energy from incoming waves.

MacDill wants the reef built by spring.

For months, base officials have declined to discuss the project. They said last week they don't want to interfere with the permit reviews.

Officials with Tampa BayWatch, a group dedicated to habitat restoration, did not return calls. The MacDill application says BayWatch will help build the reef.

The threat to MacDill's shoreline is real, other authorities said.

"It's a fairly well-documented thing," said Tom Ash, who coordinates the artificial reef program for Hillsborough's Environmental Protection Commission. A colleague at another agency said the shore is "almost up to the golf course," Ash said.

Hillsborough has permitted eight artificial reefs, including one near Egmont Key that is 400 yards square. There are also a half-dozen smaller projects involving reef balls, Ash said.

But in those cases, the primary purpose was enhancing habitat.

MacDill's reef is expected to draw oysters, fish and other wildlife. But its main goal is erosion control.

There is at least one similar project: Several years ago, the state Department of Transportation used limerock to build a 450-foot-long breakwater on the south end of Picnic Island.

Until then, waves swallowed 15 feet of beach every year, said Joe Bacheler with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Since then, erosion has all but stopped.

Reef balls resemble upside-down punch bowls with holes in them. The ones to be used at MacDill are 2 feet in diameter, 18 inches tall and weigh about 75 pounds.

They'll be positioned in about 2 feet of water and arranged in five separate patterns between 10 and 18 feet wide, according to the permit application. They'll be monitored every six months for two years to see which patterns stay put and work best.

The cost has not been disclosed. Reef Innovations, a St. Cloud company that will make the reef balls, could not be reached for comment.

It's unclear how much erosion at MacDill is natural, and how much is due to boat traffic. The base cites both.

On average, 20 ships a day chug past the site on their way to and from the Port of Tampa, said Tampa Port Authority spokesman Steve Valley. Some are up to 700 feet long.

The state, the army corps and the port authority must issue permits before the project can move ahead. County environmental officials must also give the okay.

Among other concerns, authorities will determine whether the structure might smother sea grasses or displace other sensitive habitat.

The reef, not expected to hamper navigation, will be flagged with stakes and buoys.

MacDill is already off-limits to boats at 200 feet offshore, and base officials are seeking to expand the zone to 3,000 feet, the application says.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com .

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