Keeping the beaches on Anna Maria Island pristine is an ongoing battle. If county staff don’t pay enough attention, Mother Nature might wash them away from existence.
Charlie Hunsicker, director of Parks & Natural Resources, briefed the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday on beach renourishment efforts to protect the county’s top economic driver. He explained how storms wash up to 12 feet of Anna Maria Island beach shores a year and what the county is doing to stop it.
“After a storm, the waves come in and and move that sand into deeper water,” Hunsicker said. “The beach nourishment plan aims to restore that.”
But storms aren’t the only natural factor that erodes beaches in Manatee County. Currents also drag beach sand both north and south, piling up the eroded sand into Passage Key to the north and into the Longboat Pass Inlet to the south.
Boosted by federal and state funds, county staff have laid the foundation for a plan to mitigate beach erosion across the island. The first project will be a maintenance dredging of the sand that has accumulated in the inlet. Manatee County will use that sand to renourish Coquina Beach in 2019.
The inlet dredging project also sparked the creation of an agreement with the town of Longboat Key, Hunsicker said. Once the county is done placing sand on Coquina, Longboat Key will be given the sand that’s left over to aid the construction of five rock groins within the town’s jurisdiction.
“It’s not very often that a town and county work together with a high-value resource like this, so we’ve done the right thing,” Hunsicker said.
Depending on where the sand comes from, Hunsicker explained, it can cost up to $30 a cubic yard. However, using a resource that comes right from their backyard brings that price to about $10 per cubic yard.
Another useful erosion prevention method is the construction of underwater mitigation reefs, said Thomas Pierro, senior project manager with APTIM, a Texas-based environmental recovery firm. There are plans for a 2-acre limestone boulder reef to be constructed in late 2020, which the state would foot half of the $2.2 million bill for.
Hunsicker said that by strategically placing artificial mitigation reefs offshore, the county can limit the amount of sand that washes back into the Gulf of Mexico.
A supplemental bill passed by the federal government will pay for most of the beach renourishment efforts, as well.
“$17 billion was approved for hurricane impacts and a little over $1 billion was implemented for Florida,” Pierro said. “That’s an unprecedented amount of federal money coming to this state.”
Pierro said his team was successful in disputing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ initial claims that Manatee County wouldn’t be eligible for those funds. After conducting their own study and passing that data along, the Army Corps authorized up to $14.3 million to the county for beach renourishment along the island. That project is expected to be completed by July 2020.
Renourishment along most of the island will cost $16 million, Pierro said, but tapping into 50 percent funding shares from the federal and state government brings the cost down to just $4 million for the county. Federal funding covers $8 million and state funding covers $4 million.
That project, however, does not include a second Coquina Beach renourishment using sand from Passage Key. Hunsicker said that additional project is only eligible for state funding, Hunsicker said. Half of the $6.5 million project will be paid for by the state. Both projects are expected to begin early 2020.
Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she was happy with the proposed changes and remembers when the beach in certain parts of the island was fully eroded.
Commissioner Stephen Jonsson took a more pessimistic view, stating that the county’s efforts will be futile in the long run thanks to sea rise and global warming. He said his constituents often complain about how the county “blows money” on beach renourishment efforts because storms just wipe the work away.
Whitmore and Hunsicker refuted his claims, citing the revenue it drives and how successful proper mitigation can be.
“You’d be surprised to hear that beaches can provide at least 4 feet of protection above sea level on the island,” Hunsicker said.
“It behooves us to promote and protect our No. 1 asset,” Whitmore added.