New Land Bridge Underscores Need For Impact Awareness

Shell_Key_Condos_2After 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?

Shell_Key_Condos_1The short answer is:  we don’t know for sure.  There are some educated guesses about the effects of the jetties and rip-rap installed by the development on the west side of the north channel.

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?

Image not taken on Shell Key

Image not taken on Shell Key

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.

dead_fishWhat about that stink?

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.

Gator Dredging Rig

Gator Dredging Rig

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.


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Questions and Comments:

Article: New Land Bridge Underscores Need For Impact Awareness
8 comments on “New Land Bridge Underscores Need For Impact Awareness
  1. Christopher Grandlienard says:

    Hi Jack,

    I’m a student a UF taking a summer class in Natural Resource Conflict and Collaboration and I’m doing a case study on the Shell Key channel closure.

    I was wondering if you would be available for an interview on your views of the current situation. Please contact me.

    Thank you.

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Christopher,

      Sorry for the late reply – for some reason I was not getting notifications of post for a few weeks. If you are still working on this project, you can email me from the contact page and I will be happy to talk with you about it. I would also be interested to share your findings on our site. Thanks!

      • Chris Grandlienard says:

        Thanks for the offer, however, I just interviewed Peter Clark of Tampa Bay Watch instead. He was very knowledgeable and passionate about the Shell Key land bridge dispute. He basically repeated his theory about the beach replenishment sand being the likely culprit. Thankfully, a study has been commissioned by the county and will be finished in 18 months. I’m not sure the citizens of Tierra Verde will wait that long. Something obviously needs to be done in the interim.

  2. Debi Keeler says:

    Is it true that you can pick up bags of sea shells off the island?

  3. Deborah George says:

    Very informative. The channel opening seems a viable solution to many problems we are having. One of my neighbors is a county commissioner. Maybe I will stalk him on his evening walk to start up a conversation, and make sure he understands the importance of this first step research being a top priority. He may turn a deaf ear….but then again, maybe not. It can’t hurt to try. Thanks for enlightening me and the motivation to speak to someone about it.

  4. Stephanie Cain says:

    Well said, Jack! All of the issues you listed are so important for the future of Shell Key. Blue Turtle Society will follow up with Tampa Bay Watch and the Pinellas County Commissioners, as well as with other Shell Key stakeholders, and we encourage everyone to do the same. Having 120 condos as next-door neighbors makes a fully flowing channel even more important.

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