For more than three years residents, surfers and experts have been arguing about an experimental solution to the problem of sand erosion on Upham Beach.
The debate is likely to continue at the St. Pete Beach City Commission meeting Tuesday when Nicole Elko, Pinellas County's coastal coordinator, asks commissioners to reaffirm their support for the Upham Beach T-groin project.
Controversial from the start, the T-groins are a series of geo-textile tubes, like large sand bags, that were buried at Upham Beach to reduce erosion and the frequency of renourishment.
The verdict is still out on whether T-groins work.
County staff and scientists from the University of South Florida, who monitor the T-groins, say yes.
The T-groins have reduced the frequency of renourishment, the process in which sand is pumped back on to the beach, on Upham from every two years to every four and have cut the cost in half, from $6-million to $3-million, according to Elko.
Residents from the Starlight Towers Condominiums, and several other condos along Upham Beach have recently joined the chorus of supporters, saying the T-groins are the only thing standing between them and the tides.
But surfers say the project has ruined one of the only surfable breaks on Florida's west coast and some residents say the beach is still eroding.
"There's no mistake, they ruined our break. So we resent them for that, but we don't feel that they work," said Mike Meehan, chairman of the Suncoast chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.
There has also been criticism that the tubes are a safety risk.
Since being installed, the beach has eroded, leaving the tubes exposed. People often climb on them and swim in the waters around them.
The local Surfrider Foundation has started a petition drive to remove the T-groins, gathering about 14,000 signatures, and has been drumming up media coverage of their efforts.
That coverage, along with concerns expressed by Commissioner Linda Chaney, has led the county staff to question the city's support of the project and the proposed permanent T-groins, Elko said.
There has also been talk of looking into different options for solving the erosion problem.
"Pinellas County holds that we have already been through that exercise and we're committed to the structural solution," Elko said. "However, we're not going to do anything the city doesn't want."
If the city offers continued support, Elko will also ask what time line they plan to follow.
In 2005, the five existing tubes were installed with plans for replacing them with permanent structures in 2012. The project cost $1.5-million and was funded jointly by the county and state. If permanent structures are built, they, too, will be paid for by the county and state.
Another renourishment is planned for next year, but Elko has since suggested speeding up the process and building the permanent structures sooner than 2012.
"This is supposed to be a five-year test," Chaney said. "At the end of the test you evaluate the results and go from there."
Nick Johnson can be reached at [email protected] or 893-8361.