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Corps hauls away part of Upham Beach

Residents want the beach replenished. The Army Corps of Engineers is getting rid of clay that's bad for sea turtles.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003

ST. PETE BEACH -- Every four or five years, Mother Nature washes away about $3-million worth of sand at Upham Beach.

Last week, the government did its part, spending thousands of dollars to haul small pieces of the beach to a landfill.

Residents of nearby condominiums, who count on the beach to help protect them from hurricanes, watched anxiously as contractors excavated an estimated 1,000 cubic yards of bad beach material.

"We're not taking the sand," said Rick McMillen, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager for renourishments in Pinellas. "We're taking the clay."

A corps contractor pumped some clay onto the beach three years ago during Upham's most recent renourishment. While the difference between sand and clay is measured in fractions of a millimeter, clay on a beach makes nesting difficult for endangered sea turtles.

The peculiar scene of a construction crew hauling beach away from a stretch that never has enough made some residents anxious about the waves licking at their seawalls.

"It really bothers me that they would remove it," said Joe Gonzalez, a resident of the Silver Sands Beach & Racquet Club. "In all deference to the sea turtles, there'll be no beach left for them."

The clay problem underscores an even bigger issue for the corps: how to locate beach-quality sand for eroding beaches.

Last week, the corps was on Sand Key, sifting out rocks the agency pumped onto the beach during a 1998 renourishment. The cost of the last Upham Beach project doubled after a corps contractor discovered oil in the sand.

The corps had planned to feed Upham a new serving of sand sometime soon, but McMillen said the discovery of clay will likely push the next renourishment into spring 2004. The delay is bad news for St. Pete Beach, which remembers the poor condition of Upham Beach before the corps arrived with sand in 2000.

Back then, the beach eroded so badly that dune walkovers were closed because their beachside ends dangled several feet above what was left of the beach.

"We were promised a year-and-a-half ago that (renourishment) would be November 2002, then January 2003, then May or June of this year," said Marlene Reid, who lives in Starlight Tower, an Upham beachfront condominium. "Now next year? We could have some terrible hurricane tidal surges between now and then, so they're just delaying it something terrible."

Upham Beach in north St. Pete Beach is the worst case of beach erosion on Florida's Gulf Coast and one of the worst in the state. A combination of beachfront development and man-made seawalls, jetties and other coastal armor have forced the natural flow of sand to pass by Upham.

It gets a football field's worth of sand pumped onto it every three-to-five years, but nearly all of it washes away before the federal government returns to replenish it.

McMillen said the clay was likely deposited on Upham Beach during the beach's trickiest renourishment. Three years ago, the renourishment turned into an environmental cleanup when workers realized the bottom of Blind Pass, the source of sand for the project, was also home to oil deposits that settled there after a 1993 spill.

The project's goal shifted from pumping sand to cleaning sand. The corps, the keeper of the federal government's beach renourishment program, was suddenly sharing the Upham stage with the U.S. Coast Guard, which supervised the cleanup.

The cleanup employed never-before-used techniques to separate the sand from oil before pumping it onto the beach. In an unexpected result, those methods also kept much of the clay from naturally washing out to sea as it usually does when the government replenishes a beach.

Last week's clay cleanup cost the corps $175,000, a cost it will share with the state and county governments. But St. Pete Beach officials fear the real cost will come in postponing the renourishment for another year.

"They can keep on finding reasons why we can't do this," St. Pete Beach Mayor Ward Friszolowski said. "But we need to find a way to get it done."

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