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Big, Bigger or Biggest...but Nothing for the Now

Impressions from the Shoreline Restoration Meeting, April 2011

April 14, 2011

Last night, in the Shelby Building of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, University of South Alabama coastal engineer Scott Douglass laid out the results of the multi-year study he conducted on West End shoreline erosion.

The findings were, not surprisingly, the same as those published in a 1978 Corps of Engineers report, which concluded that dredging of the Mobile Ship Channel is a major factor in erosion of the Gulf-side shoreline, particularly the down-current beaches on the Gulf-side West End of the island.  One of the solutions involved the Corps dumping sand closer to the island to help facilitate more accumulation of sand on the beaches, a solution also proposed in the 1978 Corps report.  It is puzzling that over a million dollars were awarded to Dr. Douglass to come up with the same findings (and some of the same solutions) put out over 30 years ago by the Corps itself.  Nevertheless, Dr. Douglass did offer up three high-cost beach reengineering proposals as part of his deliverables for his seven figure fee.

It was disheartening to see that all three proposed solutions involved staggering sums.  There was the 30 million dollar solution, the 60 million dollar solution and the 70 million dollar solution, which essentially involving putting sand (proposal 1), more sand (proposal 2) or a lot more sand (proposal 3) on the beach.  Since the odds of procuring grants of that magnitude are weak at best, some of us in attendance would have appreciated other possible measures, such as 2, 5 and 10 million dollar solutions.

One option that was proposed by a future Task Force member at a previous Douglass presentation on the island in the summer of 2008 - the same option which was brought up by Dr. Douglass himself in a meeting with the Task Force in February 2010 - was to create rock jetties at various locations, particularly one just east of the Katrina Cut.  This might have been one of those single digit million dollar solutions that would have helped sand accumulate on the far West End beaches.  But this option was not presented at all in the meeting last night.

Some attendees came away from the meeting with the feeling that perhaps only high dollar solutions were presented as a means to discourage those who seek restoration on the West End, knowing that funds in those amounts will be hard to come by.  It is no secret that some islanders would like to see the entire West End washed away, or at least abandoned entirely by homeowners, so as to reduce or eliminate the "headache" that comes with servicing and preserving the fragile West End infrastructure.

As for the revenue that West End rental houses generate for the Town of Dauphin Island, one islander has said that just one condo complex could replace the tax revenue lost from all those West End houses if they were destroyed by a hurricane, or seized and razed as a result of eminent domain.  Such a statement, while insensitive to island lovers and homeowners on the West End, is also inaccurate since it ignores several factors.  It fails to acknowledge that visitors who rent the West End houses don't want to vacation in a condo.  They want to stay in a little beach house which gives them more of a sense of privacy, solitude, quiet or feeling like it's truly a home away from home.  This is part of the reason they choose the quiet beach and fishing village atmosphere of Dauphin Island over the crowded condo-kingdom of Gulf Shores.

The statement also fails to recognize the ancillary industries affected - construction and repair work for builders, plumbers, electricians, and other building related services; people who make a living cleaning the rental houses; and demand for on-the-spot shopping at local businesses and restaurants which are frequented as much or more so by guests than by residents.  Building one condo complex to replace all those houses would slash the demand for those services exponentially.

Finally, the footprint of one condo complex would not generate the level of property taxes reaped from hundreds of West End homes, nor the revenues generated by renters since, again, many choose Dauphin Island for the private, one-family houses right on the beach, rather than a more public-feeling, multi-tenant high-rise which requires an elevator ride (and maybe also a crossover of the road) to get to the water.

So at the meeting last night, we were presented with shoot-for-the-moon proposals (which we certainly hope can be achieved of course) but no solutions for the interim.  Nothing that could be more realistically achieved in the short term.

Ironically, one of the proposals offered by the Task Force last year was a single-digit million dollar project to build berm-like dune structures just north of the existing shoreline, as a short-term measure (if nothing else) to help protect the public beach, homes and infrastructure which were being eroded weekly by the savage winter storms of late fall 2009 through winter 2010.  Even though the money proposed to fund the project was from a non-taxpayer-funded source (CIAP oil and gas royalties), the idea was not pursued by the Town.

But "miraculously," the berms materialized in May 2010 after the BP Oil Spill.  FOR FREE.  No cost to the Town or its residents.

Then astoundingly, the berms were removed six months later, right as we were headed into winter 2011 when more winter storms may have again threatened the shoreline.  BP paid for the berms, but rather than leave them there to protect the area, apparently they were removed with no protest from (or at the request of ?) the Town.  It remains a mystery as to why.

Some say it was to make access to the water easier for the spring tourist season.  But surely openings could have been created in the berms for access.  Or we could have asked BP to merely bulldoze the sand down and spread it out, creating something of a widened beach.  Or we could have allowed people to walk over the berms at any point they desired (without fines), and thereby punch down the dunes over time.  Anything would have been a better solution over simply removing all that sand which would have eventually leveled out and helped to bring back some of the lost beach.

This would have been a free solution which would have achieved at least some measure of what was proposed in Dr. Douglass' presentation last night.  The Douglass solutions in the tens of millions of dollars will have to come from some other source, most likely taxpayer-funded grants rather than free from BP.  In the current economic climate, it does not look promising.

So we are back to square one, with no somewhat-more-affordable solutions on the table.  And nothing for the now.

It remains to be seen if the Town will actively pursue funding for any of the high-dollar proposals offered by Dr. Douglass.

Related Links


1978 Corps of Engineers Report




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