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Maintaining public beaches costly for Coast counties

The Mississippi Gulf Coast and beaches are synonymous. With their natural beauty and range of activities, beaches are one of the area’s main attractions. Maintaining those miles of beaches is a far greater task than most beach goers realize.

Harrison County has a Sand Beach Department responsible for the upkeep and cleaning of its 26 miles of manmade beach. A crew of 30 people in the summer and 27 in the winter work with a yearly budget of $1.6 million to keep the area’s main attraction in shape.

“We have a design template for the beach and work through the year to maintain that,” said Sand Beach Department director Bobby Weaver. “Crews are constantly moving sand to reshape it to the original template. It’s an ongoing, year-round job because wind causes sand to build up on the steps against the seawall and onto the highway and median.”

He says this fall’s Hurricane Ivan with its east and northeasterly winds blew sand offshore, south of the sound and did little damage to the beach. But Tropical Storm Matthew coming out of the south with 36 hours of constant winds of 25 to 30 miles per hour moved a lot of sand onto U.S. 90 and blew hard enough to move damp sand. Damage is estimated at $1 million for Ivan and a half million for Matthew. However, Matthew does not qualify for relief funds because it was not declared a federal disaster.

“One of our winter functions is to strip the medians of sand that blew during the summer months and replant grass,” Weaver said. “We didn’t have much median work and were in good shape until Matthew changed all that.”

In the summer months, half of the beach crew stays busy mowing and weed eating the grassy areas on the highway. “A lot of people don’t know we do that but we maintain the grass and landscape the beds on the highway,” the director said. “No matter where you are, you see the highway and the beach and we try to keep both of them looking good.”

Trash on the beach is a big problem. It comes from people on the beach and washes onshore from the water. Crews and equipment canvass the area for litter, pieces of wood, dead fish and all other kinds of debris. Trash also builds up around the beach fencing. Weaver says three or four employees do nothing but that, using heavy equipment for some of the tasks.

“The most challenging and frustrating thing we do is dealing with trash,” he said. “We can thoroughly canvass the entire area and two days later it may look like we’ve never been there. It’s very discouraging trying to keep 900 acres clean and impossible to clean it every day.”

He says he and his crew are sensitive to letters and phone calls about litter on the beach. It’s a year-round problem but not as bad in the winter as in the summer. “People ask why we don’t clean the beach, and I ask why people can’t dispose of trash properly,” he said.

In the late 1980s, the beach department started planting dune vegetation for erosion control and aesthetics. “It does help. In places where you see vibrant sand dunes, there is less sand on the highway, less material goes north,” Weaver said.

“It also looks good and makes each location look differently.”

Sand fencing is used at new dune locations to temporarily help prevent blowing sand. He says the fencing is not the most aesthetic thing to have on the beach and has met with complaints from some landowners. The beach crew is in a constant battle to keep the sand on the beach and continues adding vegetation to existing dunes and building new dunes.
Boardwalks used as pedestrian pathways are being completed in keeping with a master plan put together in the 1980s. Comfort stations are provided at trolley stops with the beach department providing funding for Coast Transit Authority to maintain. Funding for the Sand Beach Department comes mainly from the seawall tax, which Weaver says generates a couple of million dollars per year. The county and city governments also apply for state tidelands funds for specific projects. One such project currently underway is with the City of Gulfport to build a boat launch at the Courthouse Road pier.

Weaver says the department will undertake a new master plan in 2005 to develop goals and project what the department will do for the next 20 years. Outdoor pavilions, showers and more restrooms are just some of the possibilities for development.

“We will meet with groups to see what issues are important to them,” he said. “We want to make the beach an active participant in Coast tourism.”

Seeing the beach every day, knowing that people enjoy it and getting compliments for the way the crew maintains it are very rewarding, he says.

County foreman Tommy Dean works with a crew of seven employees to maintain Hancock County’s seven miles of public beaches, three piers and two boat launches. He says the county’s beaches must be constantly graded and cleaned of a steady stream of seaweed and other debris coming from the barrier islands.

“A lot blows in. We get it cleaned up and then it comes along again,” he said. “Our beaches run north to south and we take more of a beating than Harrison County.”

Dean says Hurricane Ivan blew in a lot of material from Jackson County, including several refrigerators. However, as in Harrison County, Tropical Storm Matthew dealt a mighty blow.

“It will take another six weeks to get it back the way it was,” he said. “We lost 2,100 feet of sand nets but the nets definitely help. We would have had more sand blown off the beach without them.”

Jeff Clemens of Compton Engineering, who has helped with the county’s beaches for four years, said Hancock County is eligible to apply for federal funds for damage done by Hurricane Ivan because it was declared a disaster. Some 60,000 cubic yards of sand were lost during that storm.

Tropical storms Lily and Isabel two years ago removed 70,000 cubic yards of sand from the beaches. Some sand fencing and sea oats have been put in but there’s still a need for more, along with some dredging. He points out that beaches are not inexpensive.

“The biggest problem is maintaining the shoreline. It costs tons of money,” he said. “The last replenishment project was in 1994-95 and cost well over $2 million. The last little beach that was built at Bayou Caddy cost $1 million.”

Clemens added that the Corps of Engineers is working with the county on a study to put in a seawall, something that will stop a lot of beach damage.

A smooth-surfaced, three-mile biking and walking trail was added two years ago in Hancock County. “It’s really surprised me how much it’s used,” Tommy Dean said. “We’re looking to add more bike paths but we’ll have to wait for some grants to do it.”

There’s much less public beach in Jackson County — about three miles that includes two areas in Ocean Springs and one in Pascagoula. The county road crew is responsible for maintaining and cleaning it.

County employee Butch Loper said those beaches had some erosion from Hurricane Ivan but no loss with Tropical Storm Matthew. The beaches are not on main highways and don’t receive as much attention as those in Harrison County. There are no commercial vendors. However, he feels they are beginning to get more use.

“They’re more natural and private,” he said, “and I think more people are migrating over to Jackson Country as Harrison County becomes more crowded.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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