SHELL KEY – Peter Clark remembers coming to this barrier island about a year ago and noticing the water that once rushed along its northeastern edge had trickled to a thin stream.
“It was a real shock to see the entire pass had closed up,” said Clark, president of Tampa Bay Watch environmental group.
Once wide enough for large boats to navigate, the pass at the southern end of Pinellas County has been closing gradually during the past few years as sand from just north of it has filled in the channel that once was several hundred feet across, Clark said.
The sand now has created a land bridge that connects the key to Tierra Verde, blocking essential water flow to seagrasses and mangroves and, at the same time, giving easy access for raccoons, coyotes and wild dogs to raid the nests of shorebirds and sea turtles, Clark said.
“They don’t even have to get their feet wet anymore,” he said.
With such concerns, Tampa Bay Watch, the St. Petersburg Audubon Society and county parks and conservation officials have been holding public meetings to examine the problems and try to find solutions.
Clark is encouraged that more than 200 people came out to Tierra Verde for each of the past two meetings, most recently on Tuesday.
But while there is agreement that the blocked pass poses environmental and wildlife questions, there is not consensus on the cause or remedy.
Clark says much of the sand can be traced to barrier island beaches up the coast that have eroded and been replenished with sand repeatedly for 50 to 60 years.
“Barrier islands are natural sandy communities that move around,” Clark said. “Nature moves them around fairly easily, but when you put a lot more sand into the system it accelerates that and closes the pass.”
Paul Cozzie, director of Pinellas County Parks & Conservation Resources, said there are other possibilities. Ping Wang, a University of South Florida expert, is studying the area and the sand migration looking for answers, Cozzie said.
“That area is very dynamic and the coastline is changing fairly rapidly,” he said. “There is a new breach possibly occurring that might help the water quality.”
Cozzie said it even is possible a storm could come through and clear the pass or otherwise rearrange the 2.6 mile, 1,800-acre island preserve that has grown through the decades.
Determining the cause of the drifting sand is important to finding possible solutions.
U.S. Rep. David Jolly, of Indian Shores, has met with the residents and the groups, and said he is ready to help with whatever action they choose to take. But Jolly, who previously has secured federal money for beach renourishment projects, said an environmental study needs to be done first.
“The environmental piece is very intriguing because as the sand started to come in and disrupt the environment of the water, there is a question about, are we so far down the line that there is a new ecology that has developed that is now in need of protection?” he said.
Clark says the sand that is pumped onto the beaches, from just north of Johns Pass to Pass-a-Grille, is washing south to Shell Key. That sand is needed to maintain the county’s popular tourist beaches.
“No one is even suggesting we stop renourishing those beaches,” Clark said. But, he said, the Army Corps of Engineers might consider scooping sand from the Shell Key pass and pumping it back to those beaches as they are renourished every three to five years or so, “and complete the cycle,” he said.
Jolly said he has met with the Corps, and using sand from Shell Key possibly could be included in two upcoming renourishment projects if the county and local groups choose to dredge the pass.
Clark said clearing the pass would restore the water flow and the flushing action that is critical to the health of seagrass beds, fish, birds and other wildlife, while protecting nests from predators that now walk across to the island. Shell Key is an important nesting area for shorebirds and a rest stop for migratory birds on the Gulf of Mexico, Clark said.
But he is worried about how long it might take to get the pass added to the Corps’ beach renourishment program, and said the state or county might be able to dredge a channel to restore water flow in the meantime.
“I wish we had started this five years ago,” he said. “Now we’re chasing the problem instead of getting ahead of the problem.”
Cozzie said the county doesn’t have money to dredge a temporary channel, which likely would fill in again in six to eight months.
He said the county isn’t opposed to dredging. “But our stand is we don’t want to waste anyone’s money ... to dredge a canal until we really understand what’s causing it to close up,” he said. “Let’s do a sand mitigation study and get an answer to this.”
Cozzie said the county’s role is to protect the Shell Key Preserve environment, rather than restoring the boat access that many people want. “We’re there to manage it for natural resources purposes,” he said.