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Q&A:  Go Natural / Why Fight Nature?

Shouldn't we let the West End "go natural"?

Is important to note that more than half of the West End is already "natural" and uninhabited by humans.  The undeveloped area, as well as portions of the now-submerged public beach, have served as nesting or feeding grounds for sea turtles, piping plover and many other species.

Some feel that the presence of humans and their accoutrements (homes, roads, etc.) are weakening the West End.  Others feel that it is "too much trouble" to preserve the West End.  If so, then perhaps that is also the case for other parts of the island.  Why spend any money at all, anywhere on the island, to help combat the elements eroding it?  Why not return the entire island to nature and remove all people and man-made structures from it?  Where do we draw the line?

There is no reason why humans and nature cannot coexist on the island.  As a matter of fact, it will take the contributions of humans to protect nature.  The island is under siege by various factors, both natural and man-made.  Island-lovers are willing to confront these factors and seek solutions so that the island can be preserved for all of us to enjoy, as well as preserving its function as a barrier island to protect the water and land areas just north of it.

The island is bigger than you might realize

Some people think the island ends at the end of Bienville Blvd, at the new "West End Beach" activities park.  Actually, the inhabited portion of the West End is only about 4 miles long.  Beyond the West End Beach, the island goes on for roughly another 8 miles, which includes the Katrina Cut breach.  Check out the Google Maps satellite views of the island.  The uninhabited part is longer than the inhabited part!

We would love to see the Katrina Cut filled, to bring the island back together again.  This would restore the wildlife habitat areas which have been lost or damaged, and revitalize the oyster industry at Cedar Point.  For more information, see Fishing and Why Save Dauphin Island.

Even if the entire West End was uninhabited, it would be important to preserve it and rebuild it after storms, because of the protection from oversalination it provides for the estuarine environment in the Mississippi Sound, and because of its function as a hurricane breakwater to protect the coastal mainland towns of Coden, Bayou La Batre and Alabama Port.  (See Fishing and Mainland Protection.)

Erosion from infrastructure?

Contrary to the belief of some, the presence of people and topside infrastructure is not weakening the West End.  Roads are surface elements, and house pilings typically go down no further than 10 or 12 feet.  Some of you will remember how the West End looked in the 1960s, 1970s, and even as late as the summer of 2004, just before Hurricane Ivan.

Aerial view over the far West End, looking east
Feb 2003

Erosion during those decades - even with more houses and more side roads - was nothing compared to what has been happening in the last few months.

The startling erosion that is taking place now is happening in an environment where there is even less infrastructure (fewer houses and shorter side roads) than when the south shore of the far West End was three or more lots deep.  And note that the mile-wide Katrina Cut breach occurred in the presence of zero topside infrastructure.

The exponentially-accelerating erosion in recent months is likely due to an accumulation of factors which has created a "critical mass" tipping point.

Natural Processes vs. Unnatural Actions  

The island suffered severe land loss in the 1930s but reconstituted itself roughly a decade later.  The 1933 condition occurred at a time when channel dredging was minimal compared to the dredged volumes of today. This raises serious questions as to whether the present supply of sand in Dauphin Island’s littoral drift system would be adequate to heal a similar catastrophic breach in the island if one was to occur today.  The south shore is not restoring itself from the land loss suffered since Katrina in 2005; it is instead continuing to erode at a more rapid pace than seen before.

Mobile Outer Bar Channel dredging began in the early 1900s and has incrementally intensified throughout the last century as the navigation channel was periodically deepened and widened to accommodate an increasing trend for larger ships to call on Mobile Harbor and the Alabama State Docks. The channel-dredged sand, deposited in deeper offshore waters, has essentially been permanently removed from the littoral drift system, making it unavailable for barrier island nourishment.  This is an "unnatural" process having unnatural effects on the island.

The ship channel has been dredged for over a hundred years.  It's time that Dauphin Island got a hundred years' worth of compensation in sand for that.  Who knows how far south the island would extend today if natural processes had never been interfered with?

Letting the West End "go natural" will not save it.  The natural environment which built it in the first place no longer exists. 

Unnatural processes are interfering with the natural processes which worked to build and restore the island in the past.  Restoring (or compensating for) the littoral drift that allows the island to heal itself, as well as restoring natural vegetation, are likely the best long-term solutions to preserve the area.

Don't fight nature?  Be consistent in that philosophy!

If it is acceptable to allow “unnatural processes" such as dredging Mobile Bay to allow shipping commerce (which brings economic health to the Mobile area), why is it not also acceptable to allow compensation for those unnatural processes, like bringing in more sand, creating dunes, etc. in order to bring more shoreline and economic health to Dauphin Island?

Why should Dauphin Island not "fight nature” while it is acceptable for the Alabama State Docks to do so?  Is anyone out there writing letters to the State, demanding that they stop the ship channel dredging because it is too hard to fight nature?  That ship channel is not going to stop filling with sand, so why keep spending millions of dollars to continue dredging it all the time?

And if you think that private dollars are funding the ship channel dredging, think again.  That's the Alabama State Docks and the United States Army Corps of Engineers running that show.  Those costs are funded by or passed on to consumers one way or another.

Even if you don't believe that money should be spent to rebuild eroding beaches, consider this:  When funding is no longer given for shoreline restoration anywhere else, then they can stop it for Dauphin Island too.  Until then...

If other coastal communities can be helped, why not us?

Related Links

More Q&A

Causes of Erosion


Fun(ding) Facts



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