Four years ago, Pinellas County built five huge, yellow tubes on Upham Beach to stymie erosion and protect the shoreline against storms.
But sand continues to disappear, along with taxpayer money spent on the so-called T-groins.
More than $2 million has gone into the project, and a $450,000 repair job is on the horizon.
County officials insist the project is worth the expense because erosion slowed. But Florida regulators have been unable to conclude whether the tubes are actually working.
"So far, there is no clear evidence that the project performance expectation is being met or that it will," according to a June engineering report by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Despite mixed reviews, the County Commission earlier this month unanimously and without debate approved splitting a $64,000 bill with the state for more engineering work. This summer, $450,000 in repairs are planned as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers replenishes the sand.
"The good outweighs the few issues other people have with it," said County Commissioner John Morroni, whose district includes the beach, which is on St. Pete Beach just south of Treasure Island. He called the DEP report "one guy's opinion."
Sand is money
Six years ago, Upham Beach — one of the state's most chronically eroded — ended in brush near the Paradise Grill's deck. Then the T-groins went in, functioning similar to jetties to stop the sand from flowing out. Beach now extends as much as 100 feet to the gulf, even with recent erosion.
Some businesses and residents, including Sharon Gordon, think people should thank those "ugly" groins.
"I have a beach," said Gordon, 47, a cook at the Upham snack bar.
The cost of the project is well less than the economic damage of allowing the popular beach to erode, Morroni said.
But the Suncoast Surfrider Foundation says the tubes messed up swimming and surfing, and haven't lived up to their billing. The group supports sand renourishment, but not the bulky tubes — and certainly not the permanent groins planned for 2013. The group considers the tubes unjustified by the cost and a safety risk.
"To me it was better without them," said Chase Kosterlitz, 23, after stand-up paddle-boarding Thursday morning. "It doesn't seem to be doing anything."
The tubes, which are filed with sand, were supposed to reduce erosion like jetties, perhaps by half. By 2033, groins would save $31 million in renourishment costs, according to estimates last year by Coastal Planning & Engineering in Boca Raton. The engineering firm has been paid $424,000 since 1994.
In June, a Florida DEP coastal engineer inspected the T-groins and filed the unflattering report.
Engineer Subarna Malakar found one tube lost its T-shaped head in 2008 and no longer functioned. An exposed sea wall and rocks lining the shore exacerbated damage to that tube and another one.
After 31 months, Malakar found the "general trend of shoreline recession continues." Malakar recommended reconsidering the design of permanent groins or "look for an alternative."
That didn't square with a February 2009 county staff report that said the project "performed as designed." It also didn't square with county and local officials' plans to seek more money for the project.
Morroni and other advocates blame vandals in 2008 for damage to the T-groins, though there is no conclusive evidence for that, said Andy Squires, the county's deputy director of environmental management. Critics at the Surfrider Foundation suggest the damage was caused by storms and wear and tear.
On April 1, Squires e-mailed DEP officials, saying T-groin critics circulated the engineer's report to the County Commission. He needed a letter of support heading into an April 6 meeting where the commission was scheduled to approve more money for engineering work.
Two hours later, Malakar e-mailed a new assessment, based on a March 8 visit. Malakar didn't explicitly recant the June report, but said a section was poorly worded. Repairs should be done — a state permit requires maintenance — and his findings "appear to be skewed" by the damaged groins.
Morroni said he wasn't aware of the DEP report, and Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel couldn't immediately recall it. They supported the groins. Neither DEP review was included in supporting documents in the public agenda.
Engineer Bob Brantly, administrator of the DEP beaches program who also inspected the site March 8, acknowledged that conclusive findings are still missing. As designed, however, the concept could ultimately reduce erosion and provide flood control, Brantly said.
"The reason why the results are inconclusive, the biggest reason, is the structures were damaged," Brantly said. "We have monitoring data, but it's not a project that was built and maintained as designed."
A University of South Florida study — the data source for DEP — did find that erosion slowed between 2006 and 2008 compared with the rate from 2000 to 2002. County officials and CP&E have touted 38 percent less erosion, although a Times review of the study shows that figure may somewhat exaggerate the effect.
The review at one location, the only groin where erosion actually increased, stopped after a year. The sand was gone all the way to the sea wall, according to the report.
Reviews by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also have found erosion has diminished, said Jackie Kaiser, a project manager.
That hasn't changed one thing: the Army Corps has not taken any part in the project, though it hasn't ruled out a role in the permanent groins.
"We already studied it once and the outcome was no, it wasn't in the federal interest. Meaning it wasn't economically viable," Kaiser said.
More sand needed
The county and CP&E consultants said the groins, which were replenished in 2006, would require replenishment every six years instead of roughly three — generating the big savings.
While this year's replenishment will require less sand than 2006 — repairs due to hurricanes — the county already is planning to replenish them again in 2013. That would coincide with replacing the tubes with permanent groins.
In 2009, the county estimated it would cost $9.5 million to design and construct the permanent groins, according a project overview submitted to the commission.
Last week, however, Squires said the groins should cost $5 million to $7 million, though the cost — like the sand — was hard to gather.
"It's even hard for me to explain it all," Squires said.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.