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The life and death of sand dunes

CLEARWATER — Pity the selfless sand dunes, rounded guardians of the beach. The tides wage wars of attrition against them. Beachfront landowners with weed whackers and bulldozers illegally chop them to bits.

But few recent onslaughts have matched the ferocity of Tropical Storm Debby. With surging surf, the storm reclaimed large chunks of dunes to the Gulf of Mexico, scattering sea oats and sea turtle nests across North Clearwater Beach.

State environmental engineers report that dunes there receded up to 8 feet. Beach regulars protective of the wind-crafted hills estimate the losses were twice as severe.

Left in their wake were stringy clusters of sea oats and sheer sandy cliffs, 6 feet tall and sharply eroded. Six nearby sea turtle nests also were ravaged, with 600 loggerhead eggs vanished in the surf.

"The sand eroded up to the dunes and stopped. The water didn't keep coming up to the seawall," said Lisa Lanza, who watched from the Regatta Beach Club as Debby-driven surf flowed eastward across the beach. "If the dunes weren't there, it would have kept coming."

Structured by sea oats and whipped forth by wind-blown sand, the dunes are legally protected habitats for shorebirds and migrating butterflies. In the late 1980s, officials dispatched bulldozers to reinforce them along the Clearwater coast.

North Beach, densely developed from shore to shore, depends in particular on the strength of its dunes. They are the first and sometimes only line of defense between millions of dollars in waterfront real estate and the spill of rising tides.

But dunes remain despised by some beach landowners as old-world inconveniences.

The dunes harbor beach mice and sandspurs, and bear no shame about trespassing on private patios or blocking homeowners' views.

Last year Clearwater Beach had the most reports of dune violations in the state, including several Eldorado Avenue homeowners who flattened them with heavy machinery.

For those homes, members of the Clearwater Beach Association said, the storm showed a certain karmic justice. Unslowed by dunes, water there surged further inland, flooding roads and some low-lying land.

Last week, while speaking with Gov. Rick Scott, Mayor George Cretekos renewed calls for stronger enforcement of dune rules. Beachgoers have bemoaned the state's lax oversight of dunes. The local Department of Environmental Protection inspector is responsible for 100 miles of coast.

"Our beaches took a hit," Cretekos said Thursday. "It shows the value of the dunes to protect the beach, and hopefully the governor's staff will understand they need to do a better job of enforcing those regulations."

Dunes can be rebuilt with dredged sand, though the process is timely and expensive, and Sand Key and Belleair Beach remain at the head of the line for local beach renourishment. The North Beach dunes likely will be rebuilt the old-fashioned way, by winds and whirling sand.

In the meantime, North Beach's flattened dunes could give way to unexpected life: nesting shorebirds, like snowy plovers and least terns, that have avoided the beach for years.

The dunes for them present a more primal view-obstruction problem: sea oats can cloak predatory cats and raccoons.

The flat white sand left by this cycle of renewal, said Marianne Korosy, a biologist with Audubon of Florida, could leave them with "a nice open view."

Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com.

The life and death of sand dunes 07/06/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 6, 2012 8:07pm]
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