Pinellas County's ambitious beach restoration project could be stalled by concerns that settling sand is killing offshore sponges, corals and algae that form an important home for a variety of fish. The discovery of a 2-inch buildup of sediment on the "patch reefs" about 450 feet off Indian Rocks Beach, may threaten a similar beach renourishment project in Indian Shores.
"To my knowledge, this is the first time it's been a big problem on the Gulf Coast," said Pace Wilber, an environmental specialist with the State Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) in Tallahassee.
Whether the damage is severe enough to halt the Indian Shores permit depends on a complex formula that weighs the benefits of restoring beaches against damage to the environment, Wilber said. Beach restoration projects expand recreational opportunities and offer increased protection from storms.
"The question then becomes: Do the negative impacts to fish and wildlife resources outweigh the positive benefits that accrue from the recreation and storm protection values?" Wilber said.
While scientists evaluate the environmental damage, Indian Shores Mayor Robert McEwen has renewed the fight for the new beach with letters and petitions.
DER divers from the agency's Tampa office discovered the problem while inspecting the Indian Rocks project to determine whether the state should issue a permit to Pinellas County for beach restoration in Indian Shores.
"About 3 feet from the bottom, there's very heavy ... cloud. I would say the visibility was no more than a couple of inches," said Debora Kohne, an environmental supervisor in DER's Tampa office.
Below that, a 2-inch layer of fine sediments covered the small patch reefs of soft coral, sponges and algae, Kohne said. The sediment kills the organisms by preventing sunlight from reaching them, she said.
Unlike the coral reefs off the Florida Keys, the coral in the patch reefs here do not form hard skeletons.
"It's a smaller reef, but it functions much the same as the larger reefs do," Kohne said.
The beach restoration project is moving 1.3-million cubic yards of sand from a borrow site near Egmont Key to a 2.6-mile stretch of shoreline at Indian Rocks Beach.
The project is the second phase of a larger renourishment project that was scheduled to expand about 7 miles of beach from North Redington Beach to Indian Shores. The North Redington Beach section has been completed, and the county is seeking a permit for the Indian Shores section.
The Indian Shores project is less important than that at Indian Rocks Beach for storm protection and recreation because the existing beach at Indian Shores is wider, he said. State officials have until the beginning of December to make a decision.
Pinellas County officials say the damage is minor. A consultant informed the county that only a few offshore marine communities would be damaged by the beach restoration, according to Jim Terry, the county's chief of coastal management.
"Yes, some of them will be impacted, but it doesn't appear that the impact will be real severe," Terry said.
DER officials say they don't know who complained about the cloudy water, but Indian Shores Mayor McEwen thinks the complaints came from the Special Beach Committee, a group of longtime foes of the project who McEwen thinks have no scientific basis for their opposition.
McEwen started another letter-writing campaign, urging residents to sign petitions and write letters to the DER encouraging the beach renourishment.
"I'm sure that we will overwhelm the very few people here that are against it," McEwen said.
DER officials said Wednesday that the water quality at the borrow site near Egmont Key is well within allowable limits. Tests were taken this week after DER received complaints about the cloudiness of the water.
_ Staff Writer Rochelle Lewis contributed to this report.