CHAPPELL: Managing our inlet for the benefit of all

Rick Chappell, Speaking Out

The state of Florida has a large number of inlets that connect fresh water outflow to the ocean. These inlets play a unique and important role in the state’s economy — both in commercial shipping and fishing as well as tourism related to the use of neighboring beaches together with sport fishing and sailing.

Recognizing the importance of maintaining the inlets for tourism revenues statewide, the Florida Legislature created a statute to guide the maintenance of all Florida inlets. This original law laid the foundation for the Inlet Management Plan (IMP) that currently controls the maintenance of the inlet at East Pass.

This statute was based on an attempt to identify an average drift along the shoreline (littoral drift) in order to guide the placement of sand that is dredged from the inlet.  In the case of East Pass, the average drift was originally calculated to be east to west, which led to the requirement to place 82,000 cubic yards of sand to the west of the inlet annually when the inlet was dredged. The current IMP for East Pass was supposed to have been validated and redefined in 2005, but this has not happened.

There is a significant problem with this current outdated plan.

First, the drift along the shoreline can change so that the passing of a standard amount of sand to the west does not always match the sand movement that is actually happening.

Second and most importantly, impulsive catastrophic weather events like hurricanes can move massive amounts of sand in the course of only a few days.

This large scale hurricane movement of sand responds to the direction of the winds and the resulting ocean surge, which can come from any direction off the ocean depending on the location at which the hurricane makes landfall.  For example, hurricane Ivan in October 2004 hit our area with winds greater than 130 mph and a surge of 8-12 feet. In a matter of days the surge removed 300 feet of beach width from the Destin beaches leaving the Gulf shoreline up against beachside homes and condominiums.

Because of the direction of Ivan’s surge, a large amount of this sand was washed over the east jetty into East Pass.  When the next dredging took place, the original IMP required that the dredged sand from the pass be placed to the west onto Okaloosa Island, rather than being placed back to the east side where it had come from.  It took 9 years to get the approval and funding to replace the beach that was destroyed in a few days by Ivan.

The large number of hurricanes that Florida experienced in 2004-2008 led to a number of situations around the state where the placement of sand based on a long term average drift, without considering hurricane effects, led to inadequate solutions for repairing the beaches around the inlets.

Recognizing this, the Florida Legislature amended the statute regulating inlet maintenance in 2008. The amended statute includes the wording that would take care of hurricane events as well. It states that the sand dredged from the inlet should be placed on the “adjacent eroded beaches” where it is needed to help maintain the beaches. This sand placement would be guided by continuous scientifically-based physical monitoring of the condition of the adjacent beaches.

The IMP for East Pass has not been revised to incorporate this important change in the Florida statute. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection created a technical advisory committee of professional coastal engineers to recommend an update of the East Pass IMP. That draft update has been completed and is now compatible with the new state statute.

The new plan can for the first time give the flexibility to dredge East Pass and use the sand where it is needed to maintain the adjacent eroded beaches, be they east or west, in response to catastrophic hurricanes like Opal and Ivan, as well as in response to changes in the long term average drift of the sand. This will be a dramatic improvement, making the new IMP responsive to the needs of the entire East Pass inlet community.

The updating of this plan is long overdue and incredibly important! The new updated plan will be presented to the Destin City Council on May 6.  It is time to adopt this new Inlet Management Plan and the East Pass community should support its approval by the Destin City Council and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Dr. Rick Chappell, a resident of Destin, is a Research Professor of Physics at Vanderbilt University and former Chief Scientist of the NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center.  He has worked on beach maintenance activities since coming to Destin in 2003.