The state of Alabama stands to gain from a federal beach nourishment program that won’t add a square inch of land to local shorelines. Instead, sand submerged in state waters may be pumped from the bottom and transported across state lines, where it will be used to reinforce barrier islands in Mississippi.

For the state’s contribution, the federal government proposes to compensate it $7 for every cubic yard of sand removed, or as much as $56 million for a total of 8 million cubic yards.

The plan is part of the Mississippi Coastal Improvements Program, which also seeks to restore mainland shoreline and build levees to protect against storm surge. A spokesperson with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would say little about the proposal, but the public comment period on the program recently closed and officials are currently evaluating several “borrow site” options.

“The material would be used to rebuild Ship Island,” said Lisa Parker of the USCOE Public Affairs Office. “There are two borrow sites (in Alabama) we are still looking at but how much [sand] we’re not sure. We’re still looking into the project and other borrow sites further offshore.”

The option to purchase sand from Alabama is the most expensive of three alternatives, which is estimated to cost between $330 million to $402 million. Alabama’s sand is targeted for its “high quality” larger grain size, lighter color and higher percentage of shell fragments than options elsewhere. Such qualities allow for slower erosion.

The full improvement program, stretched out over decades but currently only partially funded by Congress, also seeks billions of dollars for restoration of more than 3,000 acres of wetland and coastal forest habitats; acquisition of approximately 2,000 parcels in high hazard areas; improvement of levees and the study of other hurricane and storm damage risk reduction and ecosystem restoration options across Mississippi’s coastal area.

But with the barrier island restoration, officials hope to issue a final environmental impact statement in June and begin relocating sand by the end of the year.
Patti Powell, the director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ State Lands Division, said any conversations with the corps have been non-binding and until the borrow site options are finalized, the state won’t make a decision about whether to participate.

“To my knowledge something like this hasn’t been done before and would require the state’s approval and an agreement (with the corps),” she said. “We haven’t had the benefit of reviewing the public comments and the corps has not submitted a final analysis of what they would even prefer, we’ll know more after that evaluation.”

Meanwhile Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier, who has been seeking state or federal funding to restore beaches there for years, wonders if he’ll be included in the ongoing conversation.

“As an Alabama barrier island and the lead island in the chain that is being restored, it would make some sense we would be included in that package, but unfortunately it didn’t happen. By the time we heard about it, it was a done deal.”

The Dauphin Island Property Owners Association was once involved in a lawsuit against the corps for erosion related to the Port of Mobile’s shipping channel. The plaintiffs argued the corps was not disposing of dredged material in a manner beneficial to the island’s natural growth. The suit was dismissed after the corps disclosed it was congressionally mandated to dispose of the material in the most economical location.

Sand along the northern Gulf Coast naturally moves east to west, Collier said, and some of what is in Mississippi’s proposed borrow sites could actually be the eroded remnants of Dauphin Island. At the same time, the sand identified for Mississippi’s coastal improvement is not in the same areas Dauphin Island has identified as potential borrow sites for its own restoration.

“We have an engineered project for the west end and later this year we’re doing one on the east end in a much smaller scale, but we’ve taken core samples in all areas south of the island and the only real promising source is way out by the (Sand Island) lighthouse,” he said, adding the further from the island the sand is, the more it will cost to dredge and transport.

Collier also said he wasn’t informed as to what the state would do with any revenue earned from the sale of sand, but he hopes if the transaction required legislative approval, lawmakers would consider Dauphin Island’s needs.

“Dauphin Island is a first line of defense and everything described in Mississippi’s project you can replace the word ‘Mississippi’ with ‘Alabama’ and we have the same problems here,” he said. “I have no idea what the $56 million could be spent on, but if the whole idea is to recover and rehabilitate from hurricanes and the oil spill, I think some consideration should be given to Dauphin Island.”