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Alternatives for Shell Key

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Pinellas County staff addressed Shell Key stakeholders at Tampa Bay Watch on Oct. 27, to discuss the closure of the north pass into the Shell Key Preserve, which occurred early this year.

During the meeting, Tierra Verde residents voiced their concerns that the closure will degrade the overall environmental quality of the water and seagrass meadows in the preserve’s back bay region. Some stakeholders attribute the closure to sand moving south from years of beach nourishment projects north of Shell Key. The residents expressed needs for the county, state, and federal authorities to restore circulation to the preserve by dredging a new north passage and using the sand for nearby beach nourishment projects.

Pinellas County Parks and Conservation Resources staff explained their land management priorities for the preserve, which the county has managed for the state since 2000. Through a series of historical aerial photos, Dr. Ping Wang of University of South Florida’s School of Geosciences discussed the dynamic nature of the Shell Key coastal region since the 1940s. He described the abundance of nearshore sand available in the area and illustrated the migration, changing coastline and extremely rapid growth of Shell Key since the early 1970s. County staff and Dr. Wang emphasized the importance of obtaining an understanding of the controlling factors of sand movement in the Shell Key coastal system prior to making any decisions about dredging.

In order to make informed science-based decisions, the county will initiate a dual inlet study directed by Dr. Wang encompassing the Shell Key coastal region from the Pass-a-Grille Channel to Bunces Pass. The study is expected to begin this winter and provide staff with a better understanding of sand migration patterns and land form changes as well as identify sustainable alternatives to reopening the north passage. The study is expected to be completed in mid to late 2017, and staff is evaluating opportunities to accelerate its conclusion. In the meantime, county staff will continue periodic seagrass surveys and initiate a new monitoring program to assess water quality in the preserve.