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Report: Hideaway Beach project didn't damage beach life

Pumping 260,000 cubic yards of sand from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico onto a 1.5-mile stretch of the northern shoreline of Hideaway Beach did not cause any significant environmental damage to the project area, a preliminary Collier County report states.

The report states conclusions of an environmental impact assessment of the Hideaway renourishment project as found by Humiston and Moore Engineers Inc. of Naples.

The county hired a private firm to engineer and monitor the renourishment project on Marco Island according to requirements in the state and federal permitting process, as stipulated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

"There does not appear to be any damage to sea grass beds from the project," project engineer Ken Humiston said in an e-mail to the Naples Daily News. "There are no indications that the project harmed any surrounding wildlife habitat."

Collier County Coastal Projects Manager Gary McAlpin released the report's preliminary findings this week. County staff will review the Humiston report and then sign off on a final draft, McAlpin said.

In late July, the final ounce of sand pumped by Weeks Marine from a location in a borrow area near Keewaydin fell onto a newborn beach that now juts out an average of 100 feet from the formerly tide-battered shoreline of Hideaway Beach.

T-groin structures were installed on the beach to slow the often rapid pace of erosion in the area caused by the Gulf's torrent tidal currents there. And a jetty was built at the mouth of Capri Pass on Hideaway to divert sand that otherwise would have clogged the important waterway.

Capri Pass is the main northern access to the Gulf for hundreds of Marco boaters.

After the barges and dredging crews left in late July, the county was left with the responsibility of determining any environmental damage the work potentially could have caused.

Humiston's firm believes that the stabilization of the new shoreline will result in coinciding stabilization and expansion of sea turtle nesting habitat along Hideaway.

The renourishment project's stretch through the prime sea turtle nesting months of May and June may have caused the low nest counts along Hideaway. But the disappointing decrease in sea turtle nesting activity occurred countywide, Humiston said.

"Sea turtle nesting activity was low during the construction period, which could be related to the construction activity," he said. "However, nesting activity has been low in previous seasons when the Sand Dollar Island shoal has completely blocked the old Big Marco Pass channel, which was the condition during the construction period."

Some sea turtles did nest on Sand Dollar Island, located just south of the Hideaway project area at Tigertail Beach. Sand Dollar and Tigertail are critical wildlife areas where thousands of shorebirds come to nest and rest. Coconut Island, a tiny sandy shoal just off Hideaway's shore, is a favorite recreational gathering place for boaters.

Sea grass beds, which provide breeding grounds for fish and other important sea creatures in the area's sensitive food chain, decreased in density at the south end of the study area, Humiston said.

"However, this is also the portion of the study area which is the greatest distance from the construction activity," he said.

"If the changes were project related, they would be expected to be more pronounced close to the construction area, which is not the case."

Sea grasses in the south area, Humiston noted, are normally "relatively sparse," probably because of the area's exposure to shifting sediments during storm events and from normal changes brought about by that area's strong tidal currents.

"There does not, therefore, appear to be any damage to sea grass beds from the project," Humiston said.

Whether any long-term damages from the project might surface in the years that follow is the subject of several monitoring projects that will produce annual reports for the next five years.

Hideaway Beach residents, through a special dependent tax district, are paying $20,000 annually for monitoring of movement of Sand Dollar and Coconut islands.

The residents also will pay half of the $115,000 cost of annual monitoring for erosion on their new beach.

The monitoring projects must produce annual data for state DEP review, according to permit requirements.

Hideaway residents also have agreed to help the county pay for sea-depth soundings 1,000 feet off shore, every 100 feet, to help track tidal currents that whip around Hideaway Beach. They'll also pay for removal of exotic nonindigenous species from a 3-acre site on Shell Island Road.

"The project goal is to stabilize the beach, which would provide a more stable beach for sea turtle nesting in future seasons," Humiston said. "On-going annual monitoring of project performance will provide long term information on the effects on sea grass beds and sea turtle nesting in the future."

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