The shoreline at Sunset Beach, Treasure Island's southernmost district, has lost so much sand that the city may employ an extreme, largely untested measure to restore the beach.
If federal funding for routine or emergency renourishment projects isn't approved, city officials have said they will resort to sand sharing, in which sand from one part of the beach is scooped up and moved to another. Treasure Island Mayor Bob Minning said he expects to find out this week if federal emergency renourishment will come through to restore the beach after damage from Tropical Storm Debby. The city was also scheduled for routine renourishment this year, but Minning said it's still unclear whether that project will be funded.
That's led city leaders to consider sand sharing, despite the risks.
"That is one of the options, but it's not No. 1," Minning said.
In 2006, Treasure Island got a permit to use the method in an instance of extreme erosion if other funding was lacking and conventional renourishment — in which sand is dredged far off shore and pumped onto a beach — wasn't on the horizon for at least 18 months. The city has $500,000 set aside to transport as much as 134,000 cubic meters of sand, which the county would reimburse.
The majority — 60 percent — of funding for regular renourishment comes from the federal government, while the state and the county, largely through the tourist development tax, pay for the rest.
If the federal government comes through with emergency funds from a separate pot of money, a $20 million project to renourish the county's most vulnerable beaches could start this year, said Andy Squires, Pinellas County's coastal coordinator.
If neither work out, sand sharing might have to do — at least for now.
"It'd be like a Band-Aid," he said.
University of South Florida geologist Ping Wang said it's a potentially risky move he wouldn't want to see done twice.
"It's not a very commonly used plan for obvious reasons," he said. "But Treasure Island is special."
The broad swath of beach sand at Treasure Island's midsection has seen relatively little erosion. Sunset Beach, a dramatically narrower stretch to the south, has. Erosion routinely pulls sand away from the beach there, and extreme storms such as Debby can decimate the beach within hours. The shoreline has now receded to a point that qualifies it for the emergency measure, Wang said.
Potential hazards of sand sharing include permanent alteration of the shoreline, an unintended consequence that can affect erosion patterns.
Moving sand from one side of the island to the other could cause an "environmental disaster," said Treasure Island City Commissioner Alan Bildz, who represents Sunset Beach.
"I just can't imagine taking sand from the middle of the beach" and piling it up where it will inevitably erode, he said
Building on barrier islands, which are naturally prone to change, was probably a bad idea in the first place, Bildz said.
Many coastal geologists think the very practices that aim to preserve or restore beach width have often made erosion worse, especially those done in the early days of beach stabilization. Sunset Beach might be an "erosional hot spot," in part because it was the site of one of the first stabs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took at renourishment in the late 1960s, Wang said.
"At that time we had little experience with beach nourishment," Wang said. "With limited knowledge, the sand was borrowed very close to the beach."
For that project, he said, the Army Corps pumped sand from close to the shoreline — between 1,000 and 2,000 feet from dry land — and dug a trench that was 1,000 feet wide, 4,000 feet long and 5 feet deep. The trench intensified erosion in the area, Wang said.
Now, the Army Corps typically dredges sand from a shoal or inlet.
Although there are still waves on Sunset Beach — some of the only ones you'll find in Pinellas County — they're not what they were before Pinellas began to routinely dredge and renourish there.
Joe Nuzzo has owned Suncoast Surf Shop, just north of Sunset Beach, since 1966. He said he remembers what the waves at Sunset Beach were like before the trench.
"I pretty well remember the days when we had waves — back in the beginning," he said. "There's a bunch of us that still are around, that still talk about how much better it was before they started dredging."