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Upham fighting a losing battle

Published Sep. 9, 2005

The sand, and residents' optimism, keeps eroding. The federal "renourishers" offer no hope of a solution any time soon.

Going for a walk on the beach? Look out. At Upham, that last step's a doozy.

Since June, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished pumping onto the shore 321,000 cubic yards of sand from the bottom of Blind Pass, the tides have nipped at the shore of Upham Beach. So far, by a local estimation _ one the Corps calls an overestimation _ a good 175 feet of fresh sand has been sucked into the gulf.

The ebb and flow has created an erosion pattern that has become a familiar sight at this beach: a 4-foot cliff between the layer of sand rushing out with the water and the layer of dredged sand from Blind Pass.

In a letter, Mayor Ward Friszolowski has asked the Corps to consider returning to the beach one year earlier than planned and depositing another $2.3-million worth of fresh sand for Upham. He also urges the Corps to consider other alternatives for sand-starved Upham that the agency already has looked at _ and decided against.

"I don't feel comfortable spending money on something we've done in the past and can't show that the result is going to be much different, particularly when the money can be better spent somewhere else. Of course, that doesn't make those constituents happy," said Rick McMillen, the Corps' project manager for Pinellas renourishment. "I've been called cold and callous before."

Around Upham, residents of the condominiums _ the man-made developments that state and federal engineers think caused Upham's problem in the first place _ distrust the Corps' decision.

Hugh McGuigan, a retired school superintendent, is vice president of Starlight Tower. Engineers think the condos, built in the 1950s, prevent sand from flowing easily onto the beach. McGuigan, like Friszolowski, points out that Upham has experienced a "massive loss" of sand since last summer, when the Corps packed up its equipment and left the beach after six months of renourishment work.

McMillen maintains that much of the sand McGuigan and Friszolowski think is lost was never intended to stay on the shore anyway. After the sand is placed on the beach, McMillen said, the tides "equilibrate" or level out.

Besides, Upham is the worst-eroding beach on Florida's Gulf Coast, and the sand is expected to float away quickly.

"We put enough sand out there for Mother Nature to move around like she pleases," McMillen said. "We put sand out, but that doesn't mean it's a stable beach."

McGuigan doesn't accept the explanation.

"I think that maybe somebody's missing the point. Six to eight weeks after they finished, we had a massive loss. By that time, we had lost one-half of what they had put down," McGuigan said. "I said, "Look, there are certain things that are natural and expected, but in any business, if you were told that 50 percent of what you produced was going to be thrown out, that wouldn't be allowed.' "

McGuigan, like several other city officials and Upham frequenters, wants a jetty or groin placed at Upham Beach to protect the sand.

State permitting officials have continually refused, saying the sand that leaves Upham ends up at southern beaches, including Pass-a-Grille and the Gulf Boulevard row of hotels, so saving one beach would starve another.

"We would like the issue of Upham Park to go away," said Jim Terry, the county's coastal coordinator. "We haven't figured out how to make that happen. If we had, we would be attempting to solve it right now."

D.W. Bennett, the executive director of the American Littoral Society, based in Sandy Hook, N.J., thinks the condominium residents essentially created the problem for themselves by buying into a development that poses a threat to the beach it overlooks.

"Once you engineer a beach, you're stuck. You have to continue to engineer it," Bennett said.

By the time Upham receives its next scheduled dose of sand, in 2003, the dune walkovers leading to the sand could be closed, as they were in 2000. Walkovers are dangerous when there's no sand to step onto on the other side.

But McMillen said he isn't swayed about returning to Upham any sooner. In fact, unless Pinellas continues to find nearby sites from which the Corps can pump sand, the renourishment cycle might fall into five-year intervals.

"I cannot find sufficient justification to get there any sooner," said McMillen, who now plans to visit Upham every three years.

Still, he hears from Pinellas constantly and wish he could make the Upham issue disappear. For now, the plan is to continue mechanically pouring sand on the beach as long as people want to live on the water.

"It's becoming more and more of a high-profile project," McMillen said. "I'd like to be there, I'd like to be able to help, I'd like to do the right thing. This is the best I can do, and it continues to not be enough for the constituents. "My hands are tied."

Soon, they could be bound even more tightly. McMillen fears that beach renourishment projects could take a hit in the next federal budget.

Last year, Upham's renourishment should have cost $2.3-million but ended up closer to $5-million after workers dug up oil from an old Tampa Bay oil spill and had to turn the renourishment into a cleanup as well.

Spending money on a beach that gives back sand to the gulf isn't a great use of resources, McMillen said. And then there is the pressure from organizations who think such projects are worthless and should be paid for by local government or homeowners.

"Why in the world is the federal government in this business of pumping sand on beaches, where the benefactors are primarily the locals, including homeowners, and the tourism economy?" Bennett, from the American Littoral Society, asked. "If Florida is so hell-bent on having a tourism economy, they ought to be able to pay for it."

For now, McMillen plans to return to Pinellas in 2003 and pump sand from Pass-a-Grille Channel onto Upham Beach. So far, the borrow site, about 300 meters offshore, does not appear to contain the oil deposits found at Blind Pass.

But Upham residents are repeating their mantra: The sand, even when delivered every other year, just isn't enough to protect their beach.

"You've tried it this way over and over and over again, and the result has always been the same," McGuigan said. "Isn't it time to try something else?"