St. Pete Beach asks county to front millions for beach project
ST. PETE BEACH -
Longtime beachgoers remember when the long, conspicuous yellow humps protruding into the Gulf were almost entirely covered by sand.
Sections of St. Pete Beach's northernmost beach, Upham Beach, lose more than 100 feet of sand each year to erosion, driving the county to spend millions every few years to renourish it.
The 120-foot T-shaped barriers jutting out from the shore slow that process, but these fabric T-groins are overdue to be replaced by permanent stone structures.
St. Pete Beach city leaders are urging Pinellas County to move forward with funding that project, at a cost of more than $8 million, before the next round of renourishment at Upham Beach, which could happen within the next year.
The problem is that the state, which typically splits the cost of beach restoration with the county, hasn't included the Upham Beach project in its upcoming budget.
“To go forward and build it now, there's no guarantee the county would ever be reimbursed by the state,” said Pinellas County Coastal Manager Andy Squires.
“The other risk is not having the beach protected.”
The request by St. Pete Beach isn't yet on the agenda of the County Commission, which must decide whether or not to front the money, trusting the county will get a state refund for half of the project's cost in a future budget cycle.
Holding off could be costly, as the vandals that have cut the existing fabric T-groins have already cost the county more than $1 million in repairs in recent years.
Also, installing the new structures before they are again covered in sand during renourishment makes more financial sense because contractors wouldn't have to dig out the existing ones, city leaders say.
“We would rather see the T-groins be done prior to the renourishment rather than as part of or after the nourishment,” St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield said.
Beach restoration is funded by a portion of the Pinellas County tourist development tax, or bed tax, charged to overnight visitors.
These extensive multimillion-dollar jobs are typically split between county, state and oftentimes federal dollars.
For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved more than $8 million to supplement about $4 million from the state and county for restoring Sunset and Sunshine beaches in Treasure Island that were badly eroded by Tropical Storm Debby.
The Army Corps this year declined to use designated emergency funds to support restoration of Upham and Pass-a-Grille beaches, which were weighed against other beaches across the East Coast decimated by Hurricane Sandy last fall.
Natural disasters aside, Upham Beach normally requires an infusion of sand every three years and it's due for another as encroaching waters have eaten away large swaths of it since the last renourishment in 2010.
The Army Corps is considering whether these two Long Key beaches qualify for other federal funds, which could potentially save more than $1 million if done by the same contractor this fall in conjunction with the Treasure Island job, Squires said.
The county estimates renourishing those beaches would cost about $6 million.
Ideally, the new stone T-groins would be installed before that happens, but if federal funds are approved, the Army Corps may move ahead with both projects by this fall, Squires said.
“We can't tell the feds 'Can you wait a few months, please?'” he said.
Honeymoon Island and Upham Beach are particularly prone to chronic erosion, requiring the use of T-groin barriers to both block incoming waves and a natural flow of sand from north to south, experts say.
Since a sea wall and jetties were installed in the 1930s along Blind Pass, a waterway along Upham Beach's northern edge, the beach continuously loses its sand to the middle of Long Key while never being replenished by sands from the north, said Ping Wang, a geology professor at University of South Florida who studies beach erosion.
“The very north end starts to erode very quickly, very aggressively, and then gradually it erodes further to the south,” he said.
The five massive T-groins put in place in 2006 have stopped some of that loss, but each year after the beach is renourished, it gradually begins to recede.
“Maybe at an extraordinarily low tide, you could see a little bit of yellow,” St. Petersburg resident Maureen Payne-Donaldson said of the T-groins' visibility when she moved here years ago.
On a sunny afternoon this week, teens in swimsuits sat on the exposed yellow humps, which appeared like the back of a whale or an inflatable raft.
Payne-Donaldson, who sunbathes at Upham Beach three times a week, said she supports the county spending money on installing the new structures this year.
“It's a beautiful spot, it really is, and we need to protect it,” she said.