By John Morton
A project that was controversial and intense is in the island’s rearview mirror, and it appears to be a success.
With time to spare, the final dump truck emptied its sand on June 12, and heavy equipment left Turtle Beach on June 19 as the South Siesta Beach Repair Project reached its goal of adding 92,505 cubic yards of sand to a 2.1-mile section of the beach.
All that was left to do before the June 30 deadline was raking and tilling, along with repairing the dunes that were impacted by machinery and trucks rolling over them to reach the beach.
Since the third week of April, trucks have been going back and forth to a sand mine in Lake Wales which is two hours away. As many as 130 trucks were making two roundtrips per day to meet the project’s demands.
During June, the emphasis was on bolstering the area south of Turtle Beach Park, where the project’s stockpile existed. The Fisherman’s Cove complex on Blind Pass Road was among the areas that benefited from the new sand, adding about 10 feet of width to a beach that was substantially thinned out.
“It’s beautiful. They’ve done a great job, they’ve been efficient, and we couldn’t be happier with how it’s going,” Melanie Walker, an employee at Fisherman’s Cove, said in mid June of the project. “The Gulf water was right up to one of our crossing bridges – that’s how little sand we had.
“And several rocks were exposed that used to be covered. It eliminated our handicap access to the beach, which has now been restored.”
The sand that was placed was approved by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and is lighter and less coarse than the sand synonymous with Turtle Beach. In 2016, only months after more than 70,000 cubic feet of sand was added to the area via a barge, Hurricane Hermine washed away a portion of the new sand – necessitating the current project.
Curtis Smith, Sarasota County’s project manager for the initiative, was pleased with the feedback he received.
“We’re hearing good things from people, who are hoping this is the only kind of sand we ever put out here again. We agree,” he said. “We’ve got this beautiful light-tan sand which is a nice contrast to what we put out here before, which was the medium-grade.”
The tilling will taking place at the end of the project will loosen the sand and make digging easier for sea turtles looking to create a nest.
Smith said he’s seen five new turtle nests arrive since the sand was put in place.
“That’s a natural stamp of approval,” he said.
FEMA has pledged to cover 85% of the project, with the balance coming from the county’s tourism budget. FEMA”s initial grant was for $4 million, but the project’s cost came in at a staggering $8.2 million.
Once slated for a date as late as 2026, FEMA last fall notified the county that a new deadline was June 30 of this year. It noted that Sarasota County was the last in the country to address the need for sand replacement caused by Hermine.
The county requested a one-year extension, with a desire to begin the project in November, but never received a response from FEMA.
Initially, the project was set to begin in early March with a 60-day window that allowed for it to be completed by May 1 — the start of sea turtle nesting season.
That time frame brought the ire of many residents, concerned about the truck traffic in the midst of tourist season.
Delays in receiving construction bids would cause delays that would mean the project would go well past May 1, but a clause in the permit the county received from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection allowed for turtle nests to be moved, if needed, buying more time.
Both Mote Marine and Audubon Florida monitored turtle and shorebird nests, respectively, throughout the project with morning inspections.