By CRAIG PITTMAN
Times Staff Writer
AT THE SHELL KEY PRESERVE — From a boat puttering along in the water, the sandy beach seems to go on and on. Then, abruptly, it ends at a mass of tangled, overturned mangroves where a great blue heron sits on an exposed root.
And there, stretching for the next 120 feet, is a brand new opening in Shell Key off the Pinellas County coast.
Two years ago, fans of the Shell Key Preserve in Tierra Verde feared it was dying, killed off by stagnant water when the only pass cutting through the island silted shut. There were meetings and petitions and discussions about what to do, even a vote by the Legislature — but nothing happened.
Then Hurricane Irma swept through in September and blew open this new pass, one that has grown wider in the succeeding months.
"I’ve just been calling it Irma Pass," said Peter Clark, founder and president of the conservation group Tampa Bay Watch.
To the quartet of 20-somethings who had anchored their boats at a sand bar in the pass Thursday afternoon so they could hop out and dance and drink a beer or two, it’s just "the new pass."
"It’s a new spot where people can gather up and join together and have a good time," said Denis Frain, 25, of St. Petersburg
"It’s awesome," agreed his friend Taylor Donaldson, 24.
Clark estimated the pass is about 120 feet wide on the Gulf of Mexico side, about 75 feet wide in the middle and then about 100 feet wide on the landward side. The depth varies from about a foot to maybe four or five feet, he said.
Some people have hailed this new pass as the perfect replacement for the old one.
"We’re pretty happy," said Colleen Bouchard, co-owner of the popular Shell Key Shuttle service.
The water flow through that pass has flushed out the area that was stagnant and revived its natural appeal, said Bouchard, whose shuttle service takes customers out to Shell Key three times a day for what the company’s web site calls "some of the best shelling and birding on the Gulf Coast."
But others say it’s not big enough to replace the old pass and its steady flushing action.
"While it’s a nice sign, it’s not a solution to our problem at all," said Tierra Verde resident Morrie Goldman, who has been working on reopening the old pass ever since it closed. "We still need to reopen the northern pass."
Florida’s dunes and shoreline are constantly sliding this way and that, pushed by wind and waves. In fact, aerial photos from the 1950s reveal that back then, Shell Key didn’t exist. At most there’s a clump of mangroves and a sandbar.
But by the 1990s, swirling sand washing southward from Pass-a-Grille Beach had accumulated enough mass in that spot to form an island that’s become popular with boaters, birders and campers.
Such an island, by law, belongs to the state. But in 2000 the Florida Department of Environmental Protection agreed to lease it to Pinellas County to manage as a preserve. It’s remained a rare bit of undeveloped property in the state’s most densely populated county.
What’s kept the estuary behind the island thriving is the pass that cuts through it. But the water flowing through the pass also carries sand, and in 2011 enough sand accumulated that it sealed up the pass. The Tierra Verde Homeowners Association got a county permit to dredge it open, but within months the reopened channel clogged up again and needed to be reopened once more.
Then, in 2015, it closed again, and has stayed that way. That has led to concerns about how stagnant water is killing off sea grass beds vital to the health of the preserve. Meanwhile the silted-in land bridge has allowed coyotes and dogs to cross over into shorebird nesting territory and kill the birds. Some Tierra Verde homeowners were also upset that they no longer had a direct route to the Gulf.
The homeowners, who are convinced that the sand came from beach renourishment projects further north, managed to persuade the Legislature last year to approve $1.6 million to dredge out the sand and reopen the pass, Goldman said. However Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the appropriation. Goldman said they are hoping to try again this year.
The report on a two-year study of the situation by a University of South Florida oceanographer is nearly completed, according to Andy Squires, Pinellas County’s coastal resources section manager. While a draft of the report does recommend dredging, Squires pointed out that it does not discuss the permitting or cost of such a project.
To Clark, though, the important lesson here is that nature can still take control of a situation and alter it.
"How cool is it," he asked, "that a storm opened up a brand new pass that never existed before, and we get to see it?"
Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.