After years of inactivity, mostly due to recession, the Tierra Verde condo development adjacent to north Shell Key is back in active development. The kick-starting of this development comes at a time of dramatic shifts in the geomorphology of north Shell Key. For reasons that are not yet clear, there is now a passable land bridge connecting the north end of Shell Key directly to the back door of the newly planned development. This convergence of preserve land with a densely populated condominium complex has a lot of people concerned – for a lot of different reasons.
Why did the north channel fill up with sand?
Another plausible explanation, put forth by Tampa Bay Watch president Peter Clark, is that the ongoing beach sand replenishment projects (designed to build up shorelines that move – around hotels and condos that don’t) is the cause of the buildup. This sounds reasonable and I have postulated it myself over the years. However, even though I really, really like saying the word geomorphology, I would be inclined to withhold judgment until a convincing, peer-reviewed scientific study can be made.
The local governing authority (Pinellas County) wants to study this problem, but there is currently no funding for this research. We hope that this issue will become a funding priority soon and encourage you to contact your county commissioner to urge them to take action. Funding will only be granted if enough people ask for it. In the absence of such a study, we can get the ball rolling by laying out some of the potential issues…
Does this mean people will be able to walk to Shell Key now?
I sure hope not. I don’t disapprove of people visiting Shell Key. Indeed, our primary mission is to make public use of the island sustainable. But, I do value the experience of remoteness and isolation that is inherent to this historically unconnected barrier island. Open land access would mean an exponential increase in people to the north end of the island. And there are other consequences too …
Coyotes, raccoons, dogs and cats?
Coyotes are beautiful and resourceful creatures, but their potential introduction to this preserve during the summer months could have a significant impact on nesting birds and turtles. Coyotes were not listed as a species on the original 2000 Shell Key Management Plan, but they have moved in to south Pinellas County over the last few decades as their habitat is encroached upon by human development to the north. I can hear them howl at night in my south St. Pete neighborhood when they catch their dinner – and they have been seen on Tierra Verde.
The Blue Turtle Society is currently collecting data to determine if coyotes have moved on to Shell Key. You can help by reporting any sightings or signs (tracks or scat) to their facebook page. Their concern, shared by bird preservation groups, is that these animals will have an impact on nesting turtles and shorebirds.
And if coyotes can make it, raccoons, dogs and cats can definitely make it. One of the more controversial actions taken by the county in 2000 was to eradicate raccoons from the island because they eat eggs and disturb nesting wildlife in the summer time. Raccoons, of course, are excellent swimmers – which is why many people questioned the sustainability of this action. Dogs were banned from the island in 2007 – even during non-nesting times of year – for essentially the same reason.
Our blog has been recently inundated with questions and concerns about the deteriorating water quality inside the island. Reports of stinky, eutrophic water have been coming in for months. Being right next to the water, kayakers have often been the most vocal about the problem. When the water on the inside of the island is blocked from the movement of the daily tides, it becomes overheated causing seagrasses and estuary life to die off. The circulation of the water behind the island has been a topic of concern for many years as the north channel has shifted. It seems that this issue should definitely be a part of any assessment made by the county.
The apparent solution: Dredging
One of the potential (but by no means assured) recommendations from the county assessment might be the dredging the north channel to clear out the newly formed land bridge and restore the flow of water to the Shell Key estuary. It has been done before and on multiple occasions. This would seem to be the most popular of the potential actions taken by the county.
Re-opening the channel would make a lot of people happy. Environmentalists would be happy about preserving the island’s geographic isolation to keep out predators and insure the productivity of this important estuary. And people who enjoy the remote experience of this local jewel will be glad to preserve the special experience of spending time on an undeveloped and remote barrier island. Boaters, of course will also will be jubilant about regaining access to the popular beach access on the inside of the north end.
It would seem that even the folks planning to live in the new condominium development would benefit from a good dredging. (wait, that didn’t come out right) They would enjoy cleaner water and better boating access to their property and to Billy’s Stonecrab restaurant – one of the few boat accessible restaurants in the area.
Who pays to tame mother nature?
If the county determines that dredging is recommended, the question becomes: how often will it be necessary and who will pay for it? These questions can be better answered after we understand how this change has occurred. It seems evident from past experience that dredging would need to be done at some determined interval to compensate for whatever is causing the sand to accumulate. If it turns out that the sand is coming from the beach renourishment projects, Tampa Bay Watch will urge the US Army Corps of Engineers (which conducts the beach nourishment) to consider dredging sand from the north end of Shell Key and redistributing it at the beach. We urge you to support this effort by contacting Tampa Bay Watch and also your county commisioner.