As the first dump trucks full of sand rolled onto the beach last Friday, several swimsuit-clad families with kids walked over to Bayn Powell to ask him what was going on.
Powell, who works for Preble-Rish Engineering, looked down at the children and drawled, "We're about to build some really big sand castles."
While national, state and corporate officials struggle to deal with the continuing flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Walton County officials have jumped in to protect their unique slice of the Panhandle using the one abundant resource available: sand.
Walton is home to 15 coastal dune lakes, something locals like to brag are found nowhere else in the country. The lakes all have channels that connect them with the Gulf of Mexico. Some are in a handful of state parks, while others are the centerpiece of expensive residential developments, such as the St. Joe Co.'s Camp Creek project.
County officials point out that the Florida Natural Areas Inventory has classified these lakes as "critically imperiled in Florida because of extreme rarity."
The largest ones flow beneath bridges carrying traffic on County Road 30A, which also serves as a line of demarcation for how salty the water is.
"You can catch a bream or a bass above the road, and then below the road you can catch mullet, flounder, redfish or crabs," former Walton County administrator Ronnie Bell explained Monday while supervising the dump trucks.
After the oil gushing from the April 20 explosion was discovered, "we were told that in 72 hours our beaches would look like a paved parking lot" from the tidal wave of oil that would wash ashore, said Capt. Michael Barker of the Walton County Sheriff's Office.
County officials sought advice from state and federal officials about how to protect their coastal dune lakes, but "nobody had a plan for what to do," said Barker, who is in charge of the county's emergency management effort. The only suggestion they got was to deploy booms, which are ineffective in rough weather.
"So we decided we had to do something to protect our coastal lakes," Barker said. "It would be a disaster for us to get any oil in those lakes."
So far, except for a handful of tiny tar balls, the only oil on Walton's beaches is from Coppertone, not BP. That gave the county time to obtain emergency permits from state and federal agencies to dam those lakes for the foreseeable future. The cost: $500,000.
They received the permits Thursday and the parade of dump trucks began rolling through the normally sleepy south Walton beach communities on Friday morning, just as the first tar balls turned up in the surf line in Pensacola, a 90-minute drive to the west.
The trucks brought in white sand — normally used for rebuilding eroded beaches — from a pit near Panama City.
When they're done, they will have deposited 10 tons of sand to build the dams. They will have to check the lakes frequently and sometimes create an opening in a dam to let some water flow, then dam it back up.
Bell, the company's special projects manager, said a number of tourists visiting from Louisiana and Mississippi have told him they wished their state and local officials had been as vigorous in jumping on the oil spill.
The Walton County project has even drawn plaudits from Panhandle environmental activist Linda Young of the Clean Water Network.
"I applaud them for taking matters into their own hands," she said. "I say kudos to them, and I hope other counties pay attention, because I think the state has completely dropped the ball."
According to Amy Graham of the state Department of Environmental Protection, "This type of project is most effective for more severe oil impacts rather than the weathered oil and tar balls currently impacting Florida."
The dune lakes aren't the only area where Walton County is taking the initiative. State officials had told the county not to worry about any oil reaching its 26 miles of beaches because BP would clean it up. But as tar balls have washed ashore, the county discovered there's a long time lag between reporting oil on their beaches and seeing a cleanup crew arrive, Barker said.
"So basically we're going to take care of it ourselves," Barker said. "We can't leave that stuff out on our beaches, so if they don't come fast enough we're going to pick it up and then give it to them when they show up."
The downside is the expense. County officials have tapped their rainy-day reserve, which is supposed to be spent only if there's a hurricane that hits, Barker said. So far, he said, no one from BP or the state has reimbursed them.
The bottom line, he said, is that "we're used to tornadoes and hurricanes and fires and floods, but we're not used to dealing with this. But it's a cleanup issue, and we need to get very good at that, because we're liable to be doing this for a long, long time."