Wednesday, November 14, 2007

11/11 - Jekyll Island beaches are slip-sliding away

The Florida Times-Union
November 11, 2007
Times-Union Correspondent

JEKYLL ISLAND - The state hopes to attract more tourists to Jekyll Island's beaches by signing off on a large-scale private development that will include hotels, condominiums, restaurants and shops.

But parts of those beaches are washing away - quite rapidly in some places.

According to statistics provided by Clark Alexander of the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, 60 percent of the state park's shoreline is eroding. The rate varies from a few inches a year to around eight feet.

One of the worst examples of erosion along Jekyll's 10 miles of beaches is at one of the state park's most scenic locations, Driftwood Beach. Along its quarter-mile length on the island's north end, the skeletons of oaks and pines jut from the sand, forming weathered sculptures that are at once beautiful and haunting.

Once, those trees occupied high ground, but the sea has steadily carved away at the shoreline. Erosion occurs naturally on the north end of Georgia's barrier islands, Alexander points out, but the dredging of the ship channel off the Jekyll beach also plays a role.

"Certainly, some of the sediment that would be getting to Jekyll gets caught in the ship channel," Alexander said. "But I don't think it has been determined how much."

That's a problem for Mindy Egan of the Initiative to save Jekyll Island, an organization that opposes the extensive development that is in the works.

Mid-island, 63 acres have been earmarked by developer Linger Longer Communities LLC for development, but there have been no studies to determine what the beach will look like in the years to come, Egan said.

"If erosion does take place there, those new buildings will be threatened," she said. "Then they will be forced to armor those beaches with rocks."

Erecting such a seawall will protect the buildings but not the beach, she said, and also will disrupt an important nesting area for endangered sea turtles.

"Turtles don't nest where there are rocks," Egan said.

She argues that the Jekyll Island Authority has put the cart before the horse in opening the island up for development on the scale that has been proposed.

"They need to do a 100-year shoreline study that will predict how the beach will be eroding during that time period before they develop along it," she said.

With data from the study, developers could better determine how far to set the buildings back from the beach, she said.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is involved in no such studies, according to Coastal Resources Director Susan Shipman.

"We have no resources to do a study," she said.

Because Jekyll is covered under the federal Shore Protection Act, any development will have to meet the act's provisions, she said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans no study to determine the impact of ship channel dredging.

Such a study was conducted at Tybee Island. The results, released by the corps in September, showed that 70 percent to 80 percent of erosion of the Tybee beach could be attributed to the dredging. But Tybee's circumstances differ from Jekyll's.

Dredging at Tybee is closer to the beach and more extensive, according to corps' public affairs officer Billy Birdwell. The closest dredges get to Jekyll, Birdwell said, is 1,000 feet.

A study is needed

Birdwell said a comprehensive study similar to Tybee's is needed to determine what effect dredging has on Jekyll's erosion, but "Right now, there are no funds for that."

Jekyll Island marketing director Eric Garvey said the Jekyll Island Authority monitors the north end erosion in an unscientific manner and has looked at establishing a beach management plan, but currently no so such plan is in place.

Garvey points out that while the north end is eroding, the south end is gaining sand in undeveloped areas. On the northern third of the beach, erosion can negatively impact a guest's Jekyll visit, Garvey said.

"There's no beach at high tide there," causing beach-goers to move farther south in search of sand, he said.

Watching for the worst

From Driftwood Beach north around to the pier at the Clam Creek Picnic area, there is no development along the shore, and that's where the worst of the erosion is taking place.

"We're observing it and we wouldn't want to lose valuable marsh or beach," Garvey said. "But it hasn't gotten to the point that it's threatening buildings or roads."

Garvey said Egan's concerns about the proposed development are unfounded.

"We haven't seen any kind of beach erosion encroaching on these areas that will be developed," he said. "There's no evidence at this moment that we should be concerned about development in these areas."

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