Concern mounts over sand clogging up John’s Pass

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, left, speaks in July with Mayor John Hendricks, second from left, City Manager Bob Daniels, right, about assistance for dredging a portion of John's Pass.

MADEIRA BEACH — The continuing clogging up of John’s Pass with sand is creating growing concern over the impact on tourism as well as public safety. City Manager Bob Daniels said at the outset of the public comment portion of the Oct. 14 city commission meeting that 45 email comments had been received on the sand issue, the most on any subject by far.

“I’ve never seen this many comments on an issue,” said Commissioner Doug Andrews. “It has certainly caused a lot of interest.”

Daniels said the city is “soliciting help from all avenues of our government — local, state and federal” in trying to solve the problem.

Because there were so many comments, Mayor John Hendricks said he wanted to assure everyone that “we are working very hard on this.”

He said the city is working with authorities at all levels and “getting a group together to see what we can do on getting funding and getting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers involved.” Having the Corps do regular maintenance of the Pass will help clear it out, Hendricks said, but a long-term solution is needed to keep it from refilling.

Hendricks said the sand fill-in at the Pass did not happen overnight. He has lived in the area for over 30 years, “and I’ve seen that sand move south.” When the jetties were extended into the Gulf on the south side of the Pass, the north jetties were supposed to be extended too, but they were not, Hendricks said. That contributed to the problem of sand being scooped into the Pass when the tide comes in.

Now, the groins that hold the sand in place on the beach are worn out, and the problem has gotten worse. The city is trying to get money for groins, “but we’re hurting financially right now,” Hendricks said.

The long-term solution to the sand fill-in problem is building up the jetties and replacing the groins, said Andrews.

There are permits for dredging the pass, but that is “very expensive” and a short-term solution, said Public Works Director Jamie Ahrens. “It will fill back in in months.”

Madeira Beach does not get beach renourishment, Hendricks said, because thecity depends on the groins to hold the sand in place. “But we’re getting all the sand from other places, and it’s coming straight into John’s Pass and clogging up the channel.”

As more sand comes in, the channel gets narrower and the current becomes swifter and becomes dangerous. Daniels said last month a child swimming at the edge of the pass was caught up in the swift current and swept downstream before being rescued.

John’s Pass is now the number one place in the county for water rescues, Hendricks said, adding, “It’s way up from where it used to be. The currents are getting stronger and stronger.”

The problem in the channel is also hurting businesses along the water.

“Some of the businesses in the pass can’t take their boats out, because there’s so much sand clogging up the pass,” Hendricks said. “As businesses fail, it’s going to have a domino effect.”

Commissioner Helen “Happy” Price said that would be very harmful to an already reeling city economy dependent on tourism. “We need to do something so we don’t lose the economic heart of our Village,” she said.

Citizen comments

The deluge of comments on the sand encroachment came from a diverse and geographically widespread group. Most were emotional pleas for help in solving the problem quickly and effectively.

Butch Knieriem of St. Petersburg said he is an avid fisherman at John’s Pass who has seen “the fish that were there 3 or 4 years ago are now gone” since the sand has taken over, specifically around the boardwalk at Hubbard’s Marina. “We need your help now to take care of this ever-growing problem!” Knieriem said.

Bonnie Komiak from St. Petersburg had seen a video from Hubbard’s Marina that showed “sewer water in the streets at John’s Pass Village and the sand building up under the Boardwalk.”

“You are putting these small business owners’ livelihood at risk,” she said. “Get it handled. You’re turning away tourism revenue.”

Raleigh Thomas of Palm Harbor, who said he is a regular customer of the party boats at the pass said, “The conditions are now at the point where the boats are becoming hard aground due to this sand migration, and will very shortly be to the point of the slips being impossible to use.”

Steve Miller of St. Petersburg said, “This situation needs to be swiftly resolved. If we start losing businesses in John’s Pass Village due to sand encroachment the economic repercussion and domino effect will be enormous, and detrimental to tourism, property values and our way of life.”

John’s Pass is not safe, wrote Cynder Goldsmith of St. Petersburg. “The current is too strong. Children play in that water while their families fish. It is not safe.”

Action plans

Hendricks said he is getting very frustrated with the lack of government action so far. “I’m so tired of asking about this and being told, ‘We’ll do a study on it.’ We need to get something moving.”

The city has a meeting with representatives from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers scheduled for Nov. 6.

Hendricks said he is hopeful that session will “get something moving” and clear up what he called “a governmental quagmire” so far as getting the sand-fill issue solved.

In other news

The purchase of a new Broyhill Load and Pack truck should give the city a big assist in solving the problem of trash on the beach and city streets.

The truck will increase the efficiency and safety for the collection of garbage along the beach, said Ahrens. One person can drive the truck, which has arms that pick up and empty the trash, rather than several people manually doing the task.

“This will cut down on man-hours needed for trash collection,” said Andrews. “It will provide a very, very big push to get trash off the beach.” Andrews noted the 96-gallon trash bins used by the truck are three times the size of the current cans.

“The money is in the budget,” Andrews said. “I’m all for it.”

The commission voted 4 to 1 to purchase the $200,000 Broyhill Load and Pack truck. Hendricks said initially that he questioned spending the money this year, but ended up voting in favor. Commissioner John Douthirt voted no. He cited the truck’s cost and said he doubted whether the equipment “would work for the benefit of the city” because of maintenance issues.