Harbor channel maintenance benefits navigation and island treasures

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District
Published Oct. 1, 2014
A duckling wearing his new bling.

A duckling wearing his new bling.

Ducklings are herded toward the coral where they are captured, banded and released.

Ducklings are herded toward the coral where they are captured, banded and released.

Historic Egmont Key will soon receive critical sand thanks to maintenance on the Tampa Harbor channel.  The small island has experienced large-scale erosion and structural damage on its western shoreline, threatening historic and cultural resources there.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District awarded a $13.4 million contract to Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company of Oak Brook, Ill., to perform maintenance dredging of the Tampa Harbor Egmont and Mullet Key channel cuts.  The project will beneficially place dredged sand and install geotextile tubes on Egmont Key to help stabilize the beach and protect historic structures. 

The maintenance will remove up to 875,000 cubic yards of shoaled sand along 17 miles of channel to improve navigation safety.  The Corps anticipates operations will begin later this month or early November, and continue for approximately four months. 

Sand placement will begin at the north end of Egmont Key which is the most severely eroded portion of the island, said Andy Cummings, project engineer. From there, he said, sand placement and tilling will progress southward along the western shoreline of the island.

Throughout operations, channel maintenance work will include turbidity monitoring to help ensure water quality standards are met, and endangered species observers to help protect marine wildlife.  If sea turtles are numerous in the navigation channel, they may be relocated through the use of open-net trawling.

The island is home to gopher tortoises, nesting sea turtles, nesting shorebirds and wintering migratory birds.  Florida Park Service manager Tom Watson is a 13-year veteran of Egmont Key and also lives on the island.  He and staff members monitor wildlife activities there and help ensure the safety of boaters and other visitors who enjoy a variety of recreation activities at Egmont. 

 “We’re grateful for the continued support of the Army Corps of Engineers who have been such a vital part of protecting the eroding shoreline,” Watson said.     

Erosion on the western shoreline has created a two- to three-foot escarpment to form and has caused numerous palm trees to fall into the Gulf of Mexico.  As a result of the erosion, currently, the beach is almost nonexistent on the west side of the island for sea turtles to nest.  Placing sand there during the early part of the winter season provides time for wave action on the beach to naturally sort the sand and silt, said Aubree Hershorin, Ph.D., project biologist.  “This is important, because it ensures the beach is as suitable as possible for nesting sea turtles that will begin using the area in April.”

Although the dredged sand is not an exact match to that found on Egmont Key, the beneficial placement is supported by the Corps, NOAA Fisheries, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and local agencies.    

"Reusing dredge sand from the local area will benefit the ecosystem surrounding Egmont Key in many ways," said Mark Sramek, habitat conservation biologist for NOAA Fisheries. "It will protect some of Tampa Bay's most important living marine resources, as well as provide shoreline stabilization to protect the island's historic and cultural resources."

“We all recognized that if nothing is done, storms and wave action will continue eroding the shoreline and eventually destroy the historic structures,” said project manager Milan Mora. 

“It’s only a band aid, but we’d like to continue to beneficially use the dredged sand to help preserve Egmont’s cultural and natural environment as long as possible for future generations.” 

Historic structures in peril include portions of Fort Dade, an 1899 coastal defense system completed in 1906.  The island is also home to a lighthouse built in 1858 and still in use today.  A number of state, federal and private entities actually own and manage Egmont Key, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Park Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Tampa Bay Pilots. 

In partnership with the Florida Park Service, the Egmont Key Alliance (a non-profit organization) is hosting a “Discover the Island” event Nov. 8-9, that includes re-enactments, nature and history tours, presentations, artists, games, food, and more.  Located in the mouth of Tampa Bay, Egmont Key is accessible only by ferry or private boat.  Day passes to the state park include ferry service to and from the island. 

For more park information, visit http://www.floridastateparks.org/egmontkey/ and go to http://egmontkey.info/page-1251146  for Discover the Island event information.