Army’s proposal to put 10-foot dunes on Pinellas beaches makes waves

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is hoping to include more resiliency measures in future beach nourishment projects in an effort to save money and protect residents. However, a proposal to include 10-foot high dunes along beaches in St. Pete Beach, shown, and Treasure Island has given city and county leaders concerns.

ST. PETE BEACH — The first loggerhead sea turtle nest of the season was found May 6 on Pass-A-Grille beach, and city and county officials have a question for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

How, exactly, are baby sea turtles supposed to climb over 10-foot dunes to reach the water? Actually, that was just one of many questions and concerns staff members from St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island and Pinellas County had when the Army Corps earlier this month sought their approval to move forward with a tentative study to reauthorize storm-damage reduction projects for an additional 50 years.

Federal participation of the projects that feature sand nourishment expires in 2025 for Treasure Island and 2030 for Long Key, which includes Upham and Pass-a-Grille beaches.

“The gist of the whole study is the nourishments in the future are going to include resiliency-type attributes,” Mike Clarke, department of public works director, told St. Pete Beach commissioners May 12. “And, for us, that basically boils down to a dune height of 10 feet.”

The dunes, which would be 20 feet wide and include vegetation to fortify them, were among a series of alternatives that the Corps hopes would maximize the protection of coastal infrastructure while minimizing cost.

That cost, Clarke said, means options are narrower.

“Some of the alternatives that we have seen used on other beaches and on our beach in the past are being systematically eliminated from consideration,” he said.

So, for St. Pete Beach’s 4 miles and Treasure Island’s 3.5 miles of beaches, it basically leaves nourishment, dunes with vegetation and public awareness.

Or, they could do nothing.

“I’m hoping that doesn’t take place,” Clarke said.

Commissioners had a hard time looking past the size of the dunes.

“The 10-foot dunes is just scary to hear,” Commissioner Doug Izzo said, adding, “I can guarantee the residents will not like that.”

Others shared that sentiment with the Army.

Pinellas County’s director of public works, Kelli Hammer Levy, told county commissioners May 14 that she, too, voiced her concerns about the study and some of its characteristics.

She said the wide dune systems also gave county staff “great pause” because they left little space for recreational activities.

“The model did not take into account impacts to the economics, did not look at recreational uses that would be lost, did not take into account the environmental impacts of such a project, and we anticipated a very strong public concern,” she said.

Staff also raised concerns about the ability for residents to have beach access paths through the dune, and had questions about the overall accuracy of the modeling.

St. Pete Beach Commissioner Ward Friszolowski said the dune system could provide valuable protection, but said accessibility and aesthetic concerns were hard to overlook.

“On one hand, I think it’s a good idea to try and protect ourselves,” he said. “On the other hand, there’s all kinds of obstacles to overcome to make this happen.”

Benefit-to-cost ratio

The Army is looking to improve its return on investment of the projects in the future, which could be problematic for some areas.

“We’re being told that based on all the data, that unless Upham and Pass-a-Grille are considered as one Long Key system, the return on investment doesn’t make the cut,” Clarke said. “Even both of them considered together is very, very low.”

Despite the concerns, the Army sought and received approval so that the study could at least get to the next step — a public comment period in August.

“The only reason that we are recommending that we continue is so that we let the Corps of Engineers bring forward whatever it is that they’re going to bring forward,” Clarke said. “Until that happens, we have nothing to comment against. And if we don’t agree to this, then there’s a possibility that they’ll say, 'OK, you’re not interested and you’re dropped from the program.’”

After airing their concerns, Levy said the Army did provide a hopeful response May 13.

“They are hearing us loud and clear, and they will be looking at other alternatives,” she said.