CLEARWATER — Once upon a time, thousands of local boaters navigated their way through Dunedin Pass, a channel between Clearwater Beach and Caladesi Island. It was a handy way to get to the Gulf of Mexico — until 1985, when Hurricane Elena roared up Florida's west coast and filled the pass with sand.
A quarter of a century later, this question comes up on a regular basis: Can't we dredge Dunedin Pass and reopen it?
The answer, it turns out, is no.
That's what the city of Clearwater discovered recently when it broached the subject with county, state and federal authorities.
Mayor Frank Hibbard brought up the idea. Like others who want to see the channel dredged, he thinks an open pass would give Clearwater Harbor a much-needed flushing and improve its water quality. Longtime Clearwater residents say the harbor used to be clearer.
"Having lived here now for over 30 years, and having lived on the beach back in the late '70s and early '80s, the water clarity to me and most residents that I've talked to … was significantly better," Hibbard said at a recent City Council meeting.
City harbormaster Bill Morris looked into the issue and found many roadblocks. Officials with Pinellas County, the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told him it would be extremely unlikely that they'd allow Dunedin Pass to be dredged.
In the 25 years since the pass closed, it has become a marshy estuary and a habitat for environmentally protected sea grass.
"It is a significant undertaking, and it has significant opposition from the environmental side," Morris said. "They do value sea grass over pretty much anything else."
The last engineering study done on Dunedin Pass determined it would cost about $2.6 million to open the channel, and keeping it open would probably require another $500,000 dredging every two years. That's a hefty expense.
Nevertheless, Clearwater City Councilman John Doran was glad that the mayor at least brought up the subject, because the idea of reopening Dunedin Pass has a lot of popular support.
"A lot of people think that it ought to be done. We're constantly asked why don't we do it, and the short answer is that we can't," Doran said. "The people who have the authority are going to tell us no."
The last time Dunedin Pass was a hot issue was back in 1995, when Clearwater was seriously thinking about trying to dredge the channel to alleviate boat traffic while the Memorial Causeway Bridge was closed. Clearwater eventually dropped the idea when it became clear that dredging would require a lengthy and expensive court fight.
The islands and passes of Pinellas County offer a historical guide to more than a century of hurricanes. The shoreline has several examples of how storms changed the shape of the barrier islands that protect the coast.
John's Pass, between Madeira Beach and Treasure Island, was carved out by a hurricane in 1848. And the last hurricane to directly hit Pinellas County made Hurricane Pass in 1921, cutting Hog Island in two and creating Honeymoon and Caladesi Islands.
The birth of Hurricane Pass, now a major entrance and exit point for the heavily-traveled Intracoastal Waterway in North Pinellas, signaled the death of Dunedin Pass a few miles to the south.
As water started flowing out of Hurricane Pass, Dunedin Pass began to fill with sand.
Hurricane Elena plugged the gap with silt in 1985, and by 1988 beachcombers could walk from the northern tip of Clearwater Beach to Caladesi Island on a solid bridge of sand.
Clearwater's mayor had been hoping for a long-term solution for reopening Dunedin Pass this time, with jetties to help keep the channel open for boaters.
"It seems like government bureaucracy to me," Hibbard said of the roadblocks.
"We'll just have to wait for another storm to open it back up again."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.