At the suggestion of Mayor Frank Hibbard, the Clearwater City Council recently flirted with the idea of trying to get permits to dredge Dunedin Pass. It was a blessedly brief flirtation. Each time dredging the pass was explored over the last 25 years, it was a bad idea, and in today's financial and regulatory environment, it makes even less sense.
Dunedin Pass no longer exists. Once an open channel between the north end of Clearwater Beach and Caladesi Island, Mother Nature began depositing sand there in the early 1980s and Hurricane Elena in 1985 finished the job of sealing it. People now can walk from Clearwater Beach to Caladesi, and wildlife and sea grasses have thrived in the protected estuary east of the closed pass.
That the pass no longer exists frustrates some boaters. Dunedin Pass was a convenient passageway between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico, and after it closed, boaters had to go north to Hurricane Pass or south to Clearwater Pass. Perhaps it has occurred to some city officials that the new city marina being built on the downtown waterfront would attract more boaters if another passage to the gulf were available.
Another reason proponents cite for opening Dunedin Pass is that it would improve water quality in Clearwater Harbor because there would be better flushing between the Intracoastal Waterway and the gulf. Those who use this argument — Hibbard is among them — say that the water quality in the portion of the waterway referred to as Clearwater Harbor has degraded over time and the closed pass is to blame.
It is no doubt true that Clearwater Harbor is less clear now than it was 30 or 40 years ago, but it does not necessarily follow that the closing of Dunedin Pass is the culprit. Water quality and clarity declined in water bodies all over the Tampa Bay area in the last several decades, but experts in water quality typically point to over-development, dumping of sewage effluent, stormwater runoff laden with pollutants and silt, and the death of sea grasses as reasons for the degradation. The construction of Memorial Causeway and Island Estates may have been additional contributors to the decline in Clearwater Harbor. There is no evidence that opening Dunedin Pass would transform the health of Clearwater Harbor, yet proponents keep making the argument. In 1987, the University of South Florida Center for Mathematical Models did a computer study that indicated opening Dunedin Pass would increase flushing action in the harbor by only 2.4 percent — a measly amount for the cost and effort of dredging the pass.
Each time the idea has been studied, experts have agreed the pass would quickly refill with sand and would have to be re-dredged frequently, as much as once a year. Even more troubling, experts have said that opening the pass could disrupt the flow of sand along the barrier islands and possibly lead to erosion of popular beaches. Among the agencies that previously have opposed dredging Dunedin Pass are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, the state, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and a host of environmental organizations.
All likely would oppose the idea today, especially with a healthy estuary now present in the area. And with Clearwater struggling to maintain city services like libraries and recreation centers, why would it commit millions to dredging and re-dredging?
Someday a hurricane may reopen Dunedin Pass. For now, there is a natural dynamic at work that is keeping it closed. It is best left alone.