TAMPA — Businesspeople, engineers and the Seminole Tribe are working on a plan to save scenic Egmont Key before tides and ships finish washing it away.
The rescuers are pinning their hopes on a device that looks more at home in the deserts of Egypt than the deep water at the mouth of Tampa Bay: a flat-topped concrete pyramid pierced with holes and called a wave attenuation device.
The man who makes them is confident they can stop a process that already has cut down an island once 580 acres in size to just 200 acres now.
“We have the only option for saving eroding shorelines that also naturally renourish them,” said Tom Brown, CEO of Dade City-based Living Shoreline Solutions. “Other options require manual renourishment. They block waves from reaching the island. We don’t stop waves. We diminish them.”
The pyramids come in all sizes and are stacked anywhere waves hit the land and pull the sand back into the water without returning it.
They already have helped reverse erosion on another local island, the Richard T. Paul Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary, and Louisiana is using them in a pilot program at Shark Island in New Iberia.
“They will work in Louisiana,” Brown said. “And I am absolutely sure they can protect Egmont Key.”
The job will take money and the permission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Beau Williams, an environmental consultant, wants to conduct a pilot program that would place 200 to 300 of the concrete pyramids across 1,000 feet near the west end of the island where erosion is worst. He predicts the arrangement would stand about 5 feet high.
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Williams hopes that the pilot project would convince the federal government that the devices can work, leading to the necessary permits and maybe even funding.
“It all comes down to the money,” Williams said. “We need it.”
The pilot project would cost $400,000 to $500,000.
Here’s how the pyramids work:
When waves crash into them, water flows through the holes, diminishing the waves’ power, lessening the water’s ability to pull sand from the island and blocking much of the sand that could be taken.
Sand from the water side of the pyramid is carried through the holes via the flowing water and trapped on the island side, rebuilding the shoreline over time.
As the shoreline grows, the devices can be lifted and moved farther back with a crane for continued shoreline expansion, even to the original dimensions.
They are placed at a distance apart to allow sea life — such as Egmont Key’s turtles — to swim in between. And they can be removed when the job is done.
The pyramid’s size, number of holes and weight vary depending on the job. The smallest have been 2 feet high; the largest 9˝ feet high and weighing nearly 7 tons.
How many are used depends upon the job.
To help obtain financing for the Egmont Key project, consultant Williams brought Thomas Ries into the fold.
The president of Ecosphere Restoration Institute, Ries had been a part of 80 habitat restoration and stormwater retrofit projects, resulting in the restoration of more than 2,400 acres of wetlands throughout his 25-year career. With a number of federal and state awards to his credit, Ries is considered one of the best in raising money for environmental projects through a combination of government funds, grants and private donations.
He expects to be done by the end of the month.
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The Ulele Spring project cost $670,000 — money cobbled together by Ries from five sources. He said he is confident he could raise the half million dollars for Egmont Key.
Williams aims to begin applying for permits for the pilot program by the end of summer. Once they’re in hand, Ries would begin fundraising.
“I’m just waiting on someone to say ‘Go,’ ” Ries said. “I believe in saving Egmont Key.”
Accessible only by boat, Egmont Key draws more than 200,000 visitors a year with its lush green foliage, picturesque beaches, and the remains of fortress installations from the time of the Spanish-American War, including cannons submerged by erosion.
Somewhere on the island are unmarked Seminole graves from the time the island was used as a holding camp until boats could take the American Indians to permanent reservations.
Egmont Key also is a bird sanctuary and home to the largest concentration of gopher tortoises and box turtles in Florida.
The pyramids proved their worth locally at the Alafia Banks Bird Sanctuary in Hillsborough Bay, nesting ground for 16 species of birds. In 2011, as erosion threatened the island, the devices were placed along 800 feet of northern shore.
“That corner has a lot of ship wakes,” said Ann Paul, Tampa Bay regional coordinator for Audubon of Florida. “Add that to the erosional forces of storms, and the island was threatened.”
She declared the pyramids a success — so much so that an additional 400 feet of them will be added in June.
Paul said she has no scientific data to back her faith in the devices, just what her eyes are telling her.
“Most who use these do not have the type of funds for studies,” said Brown, with Living Shoreline Solutions.
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Jim Spangler, past president of the nonprofit Egmont Key Alliance, wants to see a full study before he accepts the wave attenuation devices as an answer.
“Until I have more information on it, I’ll continue to back the solution offered by the Army Corps of Engineers,” Spangler said. “They conducted a rigorous study to get to their conclusion.”
The Corps of Engineers released its study on the best option for saving Egmont Key in 2009, settling on sheet pile walls in front of areas of the island threatened by erosion.
The walls would be placed where the shoreline should end. Sand would be placed behind the walls until they’re buried and added to the front of the walls every seven years.
Brown said if the walls are exposed during this cycle water will slap them and create even larger waves, causing more turbulence.
That is one reason the Florida Audubon Society chose the pyramids, Paul said. She also noted that the devices can provide habitat for marine life: The concrete has a PH balance that allows oysters to attach and fish and other aquatic life use the inside of the structure as they would a coral reef.
The walls at Egmont Key would cost $8 million to $10 million. No money has been allocated for them yet.
“The holdup has been that nobody lives on Egmont Key except one park ranger,” said Spangler with the Egmont Key Alliance. “If the island had residents I think there would be urgency.”
Meantime, the Corps of Engineers drops sand onto the edge of the island every few years to re-nourish it. Another 1.4 million cubic yards will be placed there this October.
“It’s a band-aid,” Brown said. “It is a temporary solution that needs to be repeated time and time again. We learn as little kids on the beach what happens when you build mounds of sand near the water.”
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Brown invested in Living Shorelines Solutions and became its CEO in 2011. Until then, the company was made up of scientists with a groundbreaking product but little knowledge of how to promote it.
Since he joined the company, he said, marketing has been a priority, and the response has been positive from a number of quarters, including the Army Corps of Engineers.
The corps did not respond to a request from the Tribune for comment.
Brown admits his company’s technology has an aesthetic downside: The pyramids stick out of the water. But he called that a small price to pay for rebuilding a shoreline properly.
Consultant Williams met with representatives of the corps a few months ago at a gathering arranged by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which in recent years has joined the crusade to save Egmont because of the tribe’s history there.
Williams said corps representatives were intrigued.
“They looked at it like this: Unlike the walls, if the (devices) fail to save Egmont, they can be moved away,” Williams said. “They’d be stuck with the walls for a long time.”
The walls have a shelf life of 50 years, according to the 2009 study by the corps.
“They would crumble,” Williams said. “It would be an ugly sight. Then new ones would have to be built somehow.”