A dance with Mother Nature: Hideaway dredging project balances human, natural aims

Lance Shearer
Correspondent

The Tigertail/Sand Dollar habitat was already in trouble – and then Hurricane Ian blew through. Now a roughly $4 million project is underway to restore the health of the system and water flow – but the work is under the gun to be completed before the beginning of nesting season for sea turtles and birds on May 1.

At the northwest tip of Marco Island, the area that includes Hideaway Beach, Tigertail Beach, Sand Dollar Island and Sand Dollar Lagoon is a place in continual flux, where ocean currents, storms, and man-made events have brought massive reconfiguration over the past several decades.

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Since 2017’s Hurricane Irma, the natural berm that protects the lagoon has been eroded, with subsequent storms causing sand to overwash Sand Dollar Island and contribute to filling in the lagoon.

“We’ve lost 15 to 20 acres of wetlands since Irma,” said Mohamed Dabees, vice president of Humiston & Moore Engineers, and project engineer for the Hideaway effort. “We are moving roughly over 400,000 cubic yards of sand to restore Sand Dollar Island and recreate the sand spit and barrier system.”

“Total wetland area will be increased by relocating the sand spit seaward of its present location to where it was located in approximately 2017,” Dabees said in a paper on the Hideaway project published in “Frontiers in Built Environment.” “The reconstructed beach berm will provide enhanced resiliency to high frequency weather events. Sediment will be sourced from the existing sand spit and an innovative sand trap that will maintain the lagoon entrance open while providing beneficial re-use for excess sediment that continues to accumulate at the end of the spit.” 

A dredging barge sits at Hideaway Beach. A roughly $4 million dredging and renourishment project is underway at Hideaway Beach to keep Sand Dollar Lagoon healthy.

The project will not cost Marco Island taxpayers a dime, said Erik Brechnitz – except those who own property at Hideaway Beach Club. Through the Hideaway Beach Special Tax District, owners at the exclusive gated community will foot the cost. They are applying to the county for Tourist Development Council funding, since allowing the system to become silted in and choking off the lagoon at Tigertail Beach would be disastrous for the county beach park there.

As current chairman of the Marco Island City Council, and former chairman of the Hideaway tax district, Hideaway Beach resident Brechnitz is in an excellent place to see the situation from all sides. Hideaway residents, he said, realize that the measures they are undertaking, while costly, are not a final solution to the problem, and as in the past, will likely need to be repeated every three to five years. Exactly how soon the process must be repeated, he said, is up to Mother Nature.

With so many stakeholders and regulatory bodies involved, including the Corps of Engineers, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries, the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection, the city, the county, and Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research involved, permitting such work is a lengthy task, said Brechnitz, and fortunately they had worked on it for a year before Ian struck.

Sand is removed from the lagoon, under the eyes of the local bird population. A roughly $4 million dredging and renourishment project is underway at Hideaway Beach to keep Sand Dollar Lagoon healthy.

“It’s a process. We’ve learned patience. You respond to requests for information, and you wait. We bid the project in September and locked in our contract” – before Ian hit. Changes in the storm’s aftermath caused the price tag to go from $3.3 million to closer to $4 million.

Hideaway Beach resident Linda Ryan, who holds the chair of the Hideaway tax district formerly filled by Brechnitz, said the current conditions are unsustainable for many reasons and stakeholders. Sand encroaching over Sand Dollar Island is shutting off tidal flushing of the lagoon, turning it into a brackish, landlocked pond, with adverse effects for seagrasses, fish and birds, not to mention human visitors. As well as beachgoers at the public county park, Sand Dollar Lagoon in front of Hideaway is used by hundreds of boaters, said Brechnitz.

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Ryan said that, despite the fact they are the ones footing the bill, Hideaway Beach Club residents have been very supportive of taking care of the environmental problem literally in their back yards. Every 10 years they must vote to reauthorize the tax district, and just did so overwhelmingly – something like 95 to 5 percent. Ryan said she is confident the May 1 deadline will be met.

Linda Colombo, president of the Friends of Tigertail Beach, a citizens’ support group, said her organization has been involved in the dredging project from the start. The new berm on Sand Dollar Island will be “shorebird friendly,” she said. “We hope it will stop water from overwashing into the lagoon and prevent serious problems from happening.”

The local Audubon Society did oppose the project, due to the required destruction of some nesting habitat on Sand Dollar Island, but as Colombo pointed out, “the area we are taking away wasn’t even there just a few years ago. The whole project is environmentally friendly – for the fish, the birds, and the sea turtles nesting on the beach.” Bird species include nesting on Sand Dollar Island include black skimmers, Wilson’s plovers and least terns.

The Hideaway project, said Dabees, is a model of how to accommodate both human and natural uses, utilizing natural materials such as sand rather than rigid structures. “The sand spit will continue to evolve with nature. Working with nature protects us now and in the future.”