Beach restoration project gets mixed reviews from surfers, divers

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – Three months after the replenishment of the 3.8 miles of beach between northern John’s Island and the middle of Orchid, not everyone is counting the project a success.

While those lounging on the freshly laid sand seem pleased, and sea turtles appear to be having a strong nesting season, some surfers and divers contend that shifting sand is covering some reefs and affecting areas where waves would break for surfing and water would be clear for diving. Late last week, there was a clear line of the demarcation for the light green silt-filled water that had carried out to the first line of reefs.

“I call it whale snot,” said county lifeguard and recreational diver Jonathan Billings, who claims he sees the sand and silt ebb and flow from the beach almost daily. “Because the type of sand they used is real fine, sometimes you can see it out over the second reef. It wipes out your visibility for reef diving.”

While still early in the monitoring process to get hard data, those closest to the project downplay the diving and surfing issues.

They say the early observations are that the beach is holding up well. They dismiss the restoration project as the cause of these issues and say the situation is not that different than it has been traditionally.

“I would offer the sand quality that was placed on the beach is very similar to the native beach sand that exists along the beach,” said Michael Walther of Coastal Technology Corporation, the consultant on the project. “My expectation is that the concerns of surfers relative to the effects of project will be allayed with some swell and surf within the next month or so.”

And no one is denying that the beach itself is in much better condition and able to support more locals and tourists seeking a break from the hot summer sun.

“Almost everyone is very pleased,” said County Commissioner Peter O’Bryan. “The beaches are packed on weekends and the people walking the beaches say the sand feels great.”

The current restoration project ran from Feb. 9 to May 6 and delivered over 300,000 cubic yards of trucked in sand. The goal was to return that section of beach as closely as possible to the way it was according to surveys performed almost three decades ago by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“Our approach in the design of the project was to restore the beach to the condition that existed in 1972, where we could do so without impacting the near-shore reefs,” Walther said. “With Wabasso Beach and much of the area to the north, we were limited to how much sand we could place because our criteria included not to adversely affect the near-shore reefs. We didn’t want sand to end up burying those reefs.”

Another constituency – perhaps the key constituency – that seems to be adjusting well to the new beach conditions are the sea turtles that spend the summer months nesting and hatching along the shore.

“Some of the concerns we had were the quality of the sand and what the relationship of the sand to the turtle nesting would be,” said Bill Glynn, chairman of the Indian River County Beaches and Shores Commission. “We presently have more turtle nests in the area than we have had in the last five years.”

County environmental specialist Rick Herren, who is in charge of monitoring turtle nesting season, cautions that due to variations in how tests are conducted, it is still very early in the process to say how the numbers will turn out once the monitoring is complete.

Officials will be keeping a close eye on the nesting turtles, who reach peak activity in July and August, as this is one barometer of the success of the project.

If the overland sand were found incompatible with the sea life, it could potentially shut the project down indefinitely.

“The key to the project is not the number of nests, but the number of hatchlings from those nests and July is typically the peak of the sea turtle nesting season,” Walther said. “The incubation period is 60 days so it will likely be September before we have a good, clear picture of the key measure of the success of the project relative to turtles.”

The County will be turning in its final turtle nesting numbers on Oct. 31 and should hear back by Nov. 15 whether the results were acceptable in protecting the endangered sea turtles. Some of the folks using Wabasso Beach recently were generally in favor of the condition of the beach.

“I think it is better, the beach is wider and the sand feels better overall,” said Candy Tabussi of Sebastian, who was there with her family.

That leaves the water sport enthusiasts as the hard sell on the benefits of the project.

Glynn says he doesn’t think the conditions are much different than they have been in the recent past.

“I live on the beach north of Wabasso Park and there is nothing here that hasn’t always been here,” said the Beaches and Shores Commission chairman. “There is sand that works itself into the water and then washes itself back on shore. You have the north winds that push the sand out and when you get an east or southeast wind it goes back on shore.”

Experts say there are a number of factors that could cause the change in the waves, including seasonal considerations or the natural ebb and flow of optimum surf conditions along Florida’s coastline.

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