When Mary Matthews first opened her jewelry store at John’s Pass boardwalk in Madeira Beach, she could look down through the slats and see fish, crabs, jellyfish and dolphins. The water glistened.
That was in 1982. Now when the 61-year-old owner of Gray Jewelers peers down, she sees only sand.
Over the decades, strong currents have changed the contours of John’s Pass, creating a stretch of unwanted beach that balloons into a white semicircle near John’s Pass Village & Boardwalk.
The accumulated sand has blocked storm drains, disrupted businesses that require water to dock their boats and lured unsuspecting tourists into a lethal, fast-moving current, making life difficult at one of Pinellas County’s most historic and popular tourist destinations.
For years, residents, business owners and city officials tried to solve the issue, but they faced a bureaucratic tangle involving county government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Then came a breakthrough, when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a state budget on June 2 that included $1.5 million for dredging the pass.
“I’ve seen how (the pass) changed. I’ve seen the struggles. And it’s concerning. I just can’t believe it’s taken this long for it to be recognized and dealt with,” Matthews said.
State Rep. Linda Chaney, who lobbied for the funding, said she made resolving the sand buildup her top priority after receiving many requests from community members and tourists.
“There’s a lot of businesses in John’s Pass that really rely on the pass being open,” Chaney said. “It’s an iconic location to our beach community. John’s Pass has been there since 1848. We don’t have a lot of areas with that kind of history in Pinellas County.”
The fishing village there draws hundreds of thousands of visitors. But because of the sand buildup, the pass is also the county’s No. 1 spot for water rescues, according to Madeira Beach Fire Chief Clint Belk.
The narrower channel has turbocharged the current, and the accumulated sand disguises a sharp dropoff into the water, so unsuspecting tourists regularly get swept into the pass.
”Without a resolution to this problem, I can say that we are on borrowed time before something more serious happens,” Belk wrote in a public statement in 2020.
In May, four swimmers were caught in the John’s Pass current. Three were rescued by paddleboarders, but the fourth — 21-year-old Ritvik Dammoju — died in the water, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
“I think people just don’t realize how dangerous that current is,” said Matthews, the jewelry story owner. “They think they’re playing at water’s edge, but they’re really not.”
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The narrower channel also endangers marine wildlife, including dolphins and manatees, according to Chaney. And it has posed problems for local businesses — fishing charters, sunset cruises, personal watercraft rentals, marinas and others — that struggle to use their boat slips because of the rising sand.
Capt. Dylan Hubbard, the fourth-generation owner of Hubbard’s Marina, has at times found his boats sitting on dry land.
He said he’s been dealing with the problem for years. His website devoted to the issue has a link to a change.org petition, which has garnered close to 12,000 signatures. He helped create another petition signed by about 40 other local business owners, calling for the city and county to reinforce beach groins and lengthen jetties. And he has organized #SaveJohnsPass rallies, with people holding signs and standing knee-deep in the water.
When meetings with city, county and state officials finally did occur, they got bogged down in disputes over who was responsible for removing the sand, Hubbard said.
“If you talk to the county, the county says the city. If you talk to the city, they say the county. If you talk to the state, they say talk to the county,” he said. “That’s the circle of bureaucracy we’ve been spinning in since 1997.”
Madeira Beach Mayor John Hendricks said the city has reached out to the county in the past to fund dredging, but county officials have been unresponsive.
“They’ve offered literally no help at all. In fact, they’ve said, ‘Although we run the show, you’re on your own on getting this done,‘“ Hendricks said.
Pinellas County administrator Barry Burton agreed that Madeira Beach asked for funding, but added that the county only pays for sand relocation under an arrangement where it can receive the money back through higher property tax assessments.
He said the county has assisted the city by initiating a study on sand types to prepare for applying for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.
In 2021, Hubbard and his landlord, along with the county, the city and the Florida Department of Transportation, jointly commissioned a study about possible causes and solutions for the shoaling. Researchers from the University of South Florida found that it was primarily caused by natural currents that carry sand into the inlet. They recommended dredging as the most feasible solution, but predicted the buildup would recur in 10 to 15 years.
Though the city has finally secured funding for dredging, the project likely won’t begin for months as officials clear bureaucratic hurdles.
Burton said the city will likely take the lead on the project, though the county will provide assistance as needed.
Hendricks, the mayor, said the dredging will have to wait until after turtle nesting season, which typically lasts until the end of October.
He and Hubbard said they want to see the accumulated sand in John’s Pass made into a borrow area for nearby beach re-nourishment projects.
“I don’t want to do this one time and everybody thinks the problem is gone away, and nothing’s done for another 30 years,” Hendricks said. “Because that’s how we got into this in the first place. The can just continued to get kicked down the road.”