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David Rainer: Beach renourishment continues along Gulf Coast

For those planning trips to Alabama’s beautiful Gulf Coast for spring break or summer vacation, expect to see an abundance of change for the better, including beach renourishment projects at the East End of Dauphin Island and in Baldwin County from west of Little Lagoon Pass all the way to the Florida-Alabama line.

“It is great to see our beach being renourished. From the Florida line through Gulf State Park and Gulf Shores to west of Little Lagoon Pass, the beaches in Baldwin County are getting several million cubic yards of fresh, clean sand,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “On Dauphin Island there is a lot of sand moving as well. In 2023, new islands and marsh area were created on the north side of the middle of Dauphin Island in Graveline Bay. The East End renourishment project just getting underway will put more than a million cubic yards of sand on the East End beach.

The dredge ship takes sand from areas near the shoreline and pumps it onto the shore via pipeline. (David Rainer contributed)

“The Corps of Engineers has closed the Pass Drury cut on Little Dauphin Island with sand dredged from the inside channel, and we are funding the engineering and design for adding millions of cubic yards of sand to the West End of Dauphin Island in 2025 or so. All of this work on the area around Dauphin Island will be great for sustaining the ecological and cultural benefits that Dauphin Island provides for our area.”

The engineered beach renourishment projects involve pumping more than three million cubic yards of sand from nearshore areas onto the Alabama beaches. Those projects, which also include raising the sand dune heights, planting vegetation and building sand fences, are partially funded by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration), the NFWF (National Fish and Wildlife Foundation) Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund (GEBF), and from state and local dollars.

Bill Bennett, General Manager of The Lodge at Gulf State Park, said the beach renourishment project may be a slight inconvenience during the work but will pay great benefits for the future of the Alabama Gulf Coast. He said the locations where he’s lived that have beaches face the same reality of coastal erosion, which requires beach renourishment projects like the one proceeding in Alabama.

“This project is absolutely amazing to witness,” Bennett said. “It disrupted a few people on overnight stays, but when you walk out on that east boardwalk and watch the ship come in and pump sand on the beaches and bulldozers moving the sand into place, you watch your natural habitat expand and protect everything north of the coastline. That’s what the dunes are designed for. It’s truly humbling to watch.

“We had a couple come down from Mobile for a few days of tranquility, and they weren’t inconvenienced. Like me, they thought it was fascinating to watch. Instead of being a disruption, they focused on the positive aspects.”

Bennett applauded the commitment made by the cities, county and the Department of Conservation to ensure the vitality of the beaches.

“I’ve lived all around the country, and we have some of the most beautiful beaches in the country,” he said. “In watching the renourishment, it speaks to their commitment to the protection of this natural asset. It makes me proud of our commitment to sustainable environmental and economic stewardship. This is taking care of it and ensuring it will be here for years to come for our children and grandchildren.”

The project in Baldwin County has completed the work in Gulf Shores and Gulf State Park and has just started to pump sand on the beaches of Orange Beach. It will continue until it reaches the Florida-Alabama line.

Phillip West, Coastal Resources Director for the City of Orange Beach, said the current beach renourishment is not quite as large as the one completed in 2005 after Hurricane Ivan, where more than three million yards of sand were used to mitigate the storm damage.

“The current project will use about 650,000 yards of material in Orange Beach,” West said. “It’s not as huge as the project after Hurricane Ivan because the beaches aren’t in as bad a shape as they were after Ivan. This project is to repair storm damage from Hurricanes Nate (2017) and Sally (2020) and repairing normal erosion. The project includes fixing breaches in the sand dunes, planting sea oats and installing sand fences.

“Prior to Ivan, we’d never done any beach renourishment, and it showed. By maintaining our beaches and doing these periodic renourishments, we are able to maintain an ‘engineered beach’ designation in the eyes of FEMA. If you maintain that, if you do have a catastrophic event, FEMA will cost share with you to repair the damage.”

In good news for anglers who visit the Orange Beach area, the fishing area on the west side of Perdido Pass has been renovated and is partially open to anglers and sightseers again. The area directly under the Perdido Pass Bridge remains closed as the work continues.

The fishing boardwalk on the west side of Perdido Pass has reopened to anglers and sightseers. (David Rainer contributed)

“It’s a great fishing spot,” West said. “There’s only one place in Alabama like that. To me it’s a very iconic location, and it will be even better for people who want to fish and watch the boats traverse the pass and dolphins playing in our coastal waters. This is a great partnership between Orange Beach and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. We have staff right there to maintain it, and it’s in our best interest to keep it usable and attractive.

“For a shore-bound angler, it’s probably the easiest place for somebody with a mobility disability to use. If you’re wheelchair-bound, you can just roll a few feet and drop a line in the water. Those options are limited for people with mobility issues, so I think this a very important area to have available.”

In Mobile County, the Dauphin Island beach renourishment project will restore approximately 1.5 miles of beach shoreline and approximately 85 acres of beach and dune habitat on this 14-mile barrier island that protects a portion of the Alabama Gulf Coast. The East End beach protects the Audubon Bird Sanctuary and other upland resources from beach erosion due to storms. The project will protect an additional 50 acres of beach and dune habitat as well as a maritime forest and a freshwater lake within the Dauphin Island East End Bird Sanctuary.

“The East End restoration should get underway within the next couple of weeks,” said Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier. “The contractors are assembling the dredge pipeline. They will be moving 1.1 million cubic yards of sand onto 1.5 miles of shoreline. It won’t make it all the way to the golf course. We will also have restoration of the dune system with sea oats planting and sand fencing.

“The emphasis on all of this is habitat protection and creation. One of the big things is the protection of the bird sanctuary property, which is under threat of being breached in storms. That whole ecosystem could be changed from freshwater habitat with saltwater intrusion.”

Collier said he appreciates the funding of the $25 million project by NFWF.  The project is expected to be completed in three to four months.

“We really think this is a great project for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “It’s going to increase the beach area that the people can enjoy, and, at the same time, it’s going to increase the habitat for animals, like birds and sea turtles. It covers all the bases.

“We just ask beachgoers and boaters to be aware of the construction activity. Be mindful of that and stay out of the construction area. Pipelines will be in the water and on land. It’s very interesting to watch, but we ask that people keep a safe distance away.”

In other news from Baldwin County, facilities at Gulf State Park continue to be upgraded.

Lamar Pendergrass, Alabama State Parks’ South Region Operations Supervisor, said the Romar Beach access area will soon be reopened, and renovations at the Gulf State Park Pavilion will soon begin.

“In the past few months, we’ve been constructing a bathhouse at Romar Beach,” Pendergrass said. “We added about 40 parking spaces. We think the addition of the bathhouse will give folks who use Romar Beach a much more pleasant experience. We’re also adding an additional shower on the boardwalk out to the beach.

“At the pavilion, in addition to upgrades in the past, we’re trying to give the restrooms and pavilion a complete facelift. We plan to redo the entire restroom areas. We plan to show the bridal room more love.”

Pendergrass said the new cabins on Lake Shelby are nearing completion and will provide visitors with the opportunity to rent 32 cabins and cottages on the lake and four woodside cottages. The project included rebuilding 17 original cabins destroyed during Hurricane Sally and adding three additional cabins.

“We’ve done one walk-through at the new cabins,” he said. “We have another inspection the middle of this month. We’re looking for those cabins to be available to rent in March. The cabins can be booked online at www.eaglecottagesatgsp.com.

“The new cabins will have two bedrooms, two baths and a bunk room for children with a TV for entertainment. Also new is a laundry room with a washer and dryer underneath each cabin. They are really first-class cabins and will be a great addition to Gulf State Park.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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