As photos over time indicate, Dauphin Island is eroding. Yet for decades the issues of why that erosion is occurring and how significant it is have been mired in debate.
Some have pointed to the Mobile Bay shipping channel as the culprit, which as recently as last year was the subject of contention when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discussed plans to widen a five-mile section of the channel by 100 feet.
Ultimately, the widening project was put on hold pending the outcome of a full environmental impact study detailing its effects on the surrounding beaches and shorelines. Regardless, issues between the Corps and Dauphin Island residents go back even further, perhaps highlighted in a lawsuit filed in 2000 by the Dauphin Island Property Owners Association along with several individual property owners essentially blaming the Corps’ dredging activities for the island’s “chronic erosion.”
Throughout the case and still today, officials with the Alabama State Port Authority and the Corps claim the erosion is not the result of dredging, but rather the very nature of barrier islands and Dauphin Island’s historical exposure to strong storms.
Ultimately, the lawsuit was dismissed in 2009, when the Corps and the ASPA agreed to pay $1.5 million toward restoration projects and the 1,700 members of the class action suit agreed to never file a similar claim against the defendants.
Meanwhile, pronounced erosion and beach loss continue, as large storms over the past few decades have also impacted the shoreline. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 cut the island in two.
Today, a trio of studies paid for by a variety of sources is underway, with one directly focusing on evaluating the island’s sustainability and developing projects and specific plans of action to improve its resilience. The studies are coming to fruition just as leaders in coastal Alabama are preparing to look at what projects might receive funding through the RESTORE Act.
Mayor Jeff Collier said for 27 years the city has maintained the idea of “controlled growth,” an effort to make the island financially sustainable while avoiding large-scale development or the loss of its small-town charm.
“You also have to balance all of that with trying to maintain the physical integrity of the island and the natural environment that is really our bread and butter,” Collier said. “It’s a fairly difficult challenge, but right now the best thing is that most people at least agree on those principals, and that makes it a little bit simpler to do.”
Current efforts, ongoing studies
There’s currently $6.8 million being spent on work to address beach erosion on the east end of Dauphin Island — a project made possible with funding from oil and gas royalties through the Coastal Impact Assistance Program.
Louisiana-based Weeks Marine began work in October on a rehabilitation project at the easternmost point of the island near Fort Gaines. According to Collier, the project will add approximately 300,000 cubic yards of sand to the beach and will also reconfigure offshore jetties in hopes of offsetting or preventing further erosion.
While it is the only project currently underway, the millions of dollars worth of studies going on at the moment — working to collect data and determine the best ways for Dauphin Island to move forward with any future restoration efforts — are imperative to getting funding for tangible projects down the road, Collier said.
“Once they’ve done their work and we have the solutions and action items, we’ll have that ‘best available science’ stamp of approval, which is what we need to have a better chance of getting funding,” he explained. “When the studies are completed and they come up with whatever actions they come up with, each one will have its own price tag. Then we’ll have to look and see which ones may be feasible and start looking for the appropriate funding sources.”
Aside from the previously mentioned study on the environmental impacts of a widened ship channel, another study, the $1 million Alabama Coastal Comprehensive Plan, is being sponsored by the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program and the Mississippi-Alabama Sea-Grant Consortium. The ACCP will focus on Alabama’s entire coastline in hopes of developing a comprehensive plan to strengthen its economic, environmental and social resilience.
A third and costliest study is the $4.2 million Alabama Barrier Island Restoration Assessment. Specific to Dauphin Island, this three-year study is being funded by the criminal fines that were brought against BP and Transocean in federal court in 2013.
Categorized as a feasibility study, the assessment is a partnership between the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the U.S. Geological Service and the Corps.
According to Patrick Robbins, chief of legislative and public affairs at the Corps’ Mobile District, the data collected in the three-year study will ensure any future restoration efforts are guided by “science and technical expertise.”
The USGS and the Corps’ Engineer Research and Development Center will be handling the majority of the data collection, which will include “geophysical surveys, and examinations of sediment distribution and water quality.” The study will also include data analysis of the shorelines and habitat around the island.
Despite their involvement, the organizations conducting the study will not recommend a specific plan to restore Dauphin Island. Instead, they will identify a number of alternative options and it will be up to the state of Alabama to implement or fund any recommendation.
“Once the science and technical data has been completed, an interagency team of experts will develop alternatives,” Robbins said. “The Mobile District will provide the cost estimating of implementing the alternatives the interagency team develops.”
If a price is attached, the same interagency team will develop reports to be provided to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the state of Alabama. Yet at this point, it’s unclear what, if anything, the state will do with the reports once they are received in 2019, which is one issue the Mobile Bay Sierra Club raised in October.
Representatives of the organization also expressed concerns about the Corps’ involvement in the study given the litigious history over Dauphin Island’s erosion issues — likening it to a “fox guarding the henhouse.”
The Corps declined the opportunity to respond to those concerns directly, but Robbins did say the role of Mobile’s district office would mostly involve managerial tasks, including scheduling and financial management.
Oil spill funding, future projects
In 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill affected all of the Gulf Coast, and Dauphin Island was no exception. Those damages were highlighted in an individual lawsuit the town filed against BP that ultimately led to a $1.4 million settlement last summer.
According to Collier, only a portion of the settlement has been used — approximately $475,000, which the City Council approved to pay off debt incurred from previous land acquisitions and beach improvements on the west end of the island.
“That’s going to help our budget to the tune of about $120,000 each year, which was about $10,000 every month that we no longer have to pay,” Collier said. “That was the option that made the biggest impact on our budget, and we’ve not earmarked anything beyond that.”
Dauphin Island’s settlement is only a fraction of the funding coming to Alabama in the multiple settlements with BP. Through the RESTORE Act, Alabama’s Gulf Coast Recovery Council is expected to allocate $599 million toward any number of proposed projects from among hundreds that have already been submitted for consideration.
So far, Dauphin Island itself has submitted three separate proposals, the most expensive of which is a $58.6 million restoration project on West End Beach. If funded, that plan would widen the beach to its natural elevation and install a dune system using an offshore sediment source.
As long as he continues to serve as mayor, Collier will have a vote on the state restoration council, but it will take a majority of its nine members to fund any project.
Collier has previously said he thinks Dauphin Island’s best chance for funding is through the RESTORE Act, and he’s hopeful the island’s benefits to the entire region will help sell others on its proposals.
“I don’t want people to overlook the facts of what barrier islands do, because we’ve got to think beyond the boundaries of Dauphin Island,” he said, explaining how barrier islands shield their respective coastlines from direct impacts during storms and also provide another layer of protection for seafood operations and other waterfront industries. “I’m the mayor. I live here and I want the island here for a long time, but so should people throughout the region.”
Collier’s claims were recently corroborated by a representative of the Organized Seafood Association who acknowledged “the role Dauphin Island plays in helping to create conditions favorable for the propagation of commercial and recreational seafood.”
Even though there are only a few projects submitted so far, Collier said the ongoing studies will likely identify and price others that could later be proposed and considered for RESTORE Act funding.
Because BP’s settlement is set up to be paid in installments over the next 15 years, there should be plenty of time to submit new projects.
Efforts to manage, reverse erosion
For years now, several property owners and concerned citizens have raised issues of the erosion on Dauphin Island, including many who maintain the Mobile Bay shipping channel is a significant contributor. When asked, the Corps references a 2010 study commissioned as part of the settlement agreement in the lawsuit brought by the DIPOA.
The study concluded “major changes in the island’s configuration” were “always associated with hurricanes or tropical storms,” but directly contradicted a 2007 report from the USGS that presented historical data showing the erosion on Dauphin Island continued even in the absence of significant storms.
Today, the Port Authority — which manages the shipping channel — operates on the findings in the 2010 study and, in general, refers to previous studies as “incomplete” or “flawed.”
Still, many of those blaming the shipping channel, including former Corps biologist Glen Coffee, believe that better placement of the dredged sand might slow down or reverse some of the erosion.
Yet since 1990 the Corps has dumped the dredged material far offshore, southwest of Sand Island Lighthouse.
In 2014, Dr. Susan Rees of the Corps’ Coastal Environment Team told Lagniappe sand dumped in that location eventually flows westward to Dauphin Island, though she also admitted it doesn’t get there very fast.
For the past two years, some residents have even tried to address the issue through state legislation in hopes of requiring “all beach-quality sand dredged during construction and maintenance of navigation channels be placed on the adjacent beaches or at a suitable nearshore location.”
On Nov. 12, Sen. Bill Hightower and Rep. David Sessions met with about 13 people who want to see that language turned into law. Sessions co-sponsored a similar bill in 2014, but it only lived long enough to see one public hearing.
At that hearing, the Port Authority was the only entity to speak on the matter. Earlier this week, President Jimmy Lyons said the authority “didn’t speak against the bill,” but rather “pointed out flaws” in the proposed legislation.
“It attempted to impose state law on top of existing federal regulations, and I don’t think a state can order a federal entity to do anything,” Lyons said. “It just wasn’t workable. The Corps already has certain requirements on where they can place dredged material.”
According to Lyons, the Corps already spends $25 million to $30 million each year dredging sections of Mobile’s main shipping channel and the smaller channel in Theodore. He added that changing the location of where dredged material is deposited might be possible on the state level, but only “if the state wants to pay for it.”
Still, residents are continuing to pursue some type of state regulation on the matter — something four other Gulf Coast states have managed to accomplish.
A draft of the proposed legislation was presented to both legislators, but it’s unclear now whether it will be introduced in 2016. Sessions didn’t return calls for comment, but Hightower said he was “just trying to listen” at this point.
“There’s a mixture of science, a mixture of opinions and there’s plenty of stakeholders,” Hightower said. “To me, it does seem wise that we would have a policy regarding our dredged material, but what form that takes, I think the citizens of Dauphin Island are still trying to figure out.”
Though he’s followed the issue for some time, Collier said he doesn’t believe finger pointing does anything to fix the situation. Addressing erosion, he acknowledged barrier islands are always “somewhat fluid by nature,” with ever-changing shorelines regardless of any human influence.
According to Collier, another benefit of the ongoing studies and the development of a specific action plan is their ability to shift the conversation from the causes of erosion to ways it can be stopped or reversed.
“Is dredging the shipping channel causing or adding to the problem? I don’t know. I’m not an engineer,” Collier said. “But we know there’s going to be a useful product coming out of that, so let’s work on getting that to a beneficial location where it’s helping. Let’s quit pointing fingers and try to take action that benefits Dauphin Island.”