Shifting sand

October 23, 2011

Economic Development

Barrier islands’ health crucial to economy

Two of the state’s four barrier islands, which are the keys to both the Coast’s ecology and economy, are in jeopardy, and state and federal agencies are now in a race with time and nature to reverse the damage.

The operation is focused on the most threatened island, Ship Island, but authorities are also worried about nearby Cat Island.

“Mississippi’s barrier islands are a key component to the health of Coast,” said Lisa Coghlan, deputy public affairs officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mobile District, which is leading the restoration effort on Ship Island. Coghlan pointed out the islands not only offer a buffer to the forces of the Gulf of Mexico’s waters, but also are crucial to the health of the estuaries.

Work on the first phase of the project – to reconnect the two halves of Ship Island – is currently underway.

Thanks to 1965’s Hurricane Betsy, Ship Island is actually two islands. The storm cut a swath down the middle of the island, leaving East Ship Island and West Ship Island separated by a channel.

Work to restore the island was progressing when Hurricane Camille sliced the island in two once again in 1969.

The island was rebuilding naturally when Hurricane Katrina dealt it a near death-blow in 2005.

Today, three miles of water separate East and West Ship Islands. Three-mile-long West Ship Island with its beaches and surf is the bigger draw for tourists, while the 1.3-mile-long East Ship Island with its large, central lagoon is popular with campers and outdoor enthusiasts.

However, the importance of the barrier islands to the Coast’s ecology and economy transcends tourism and outdoors activities. The islands are indeed a barrier, keeping back salt water from the Gulf — and protecting the mainland from the surge from tropical systems — while retaining the fresh water supplied by the mainland creeks and rivers that feed into the Mississippi Sound.

This gives the Coast’s waters their unique brackishness, creating a “nursery” for shrimp, shellfish and other marine life that feed both the Coast’s ecology as well as its economy.

The rift between the two island halves was growing when work started.

Phase one of the project calls for adding 430,000 cubic yards of sand to northern part of West Ship Island. The sand is being collected from an area just north of the island.

Phase two is much more ambitious. Plans are to move 13 million cubic yards of sand to actually fill the island’s cut.

Phase three shifts to East Ship Island where five million cubic yards of sand will be deposited.

In total, the project is expected to take approximately 30 months to complete, and cost roughly $300 million.

Four federal agencies as well as the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality are involved.

The project falls under the Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP). Established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush just days before Hurricane Katrina, CIAP authorizes funds to be distributed to outer Continental Shelf oil- and gas-producing states for the conservation, protection and preservation of coastal areas, including wetlands.

Gov. Haley Barbour assigned the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources as the state agency overseeing CIAP.

While work progresses on Ship Island, officials are concerned about Cat Island. Dr. Susan Rees, oceanographer and leader of the Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi’s CIAP, said in a statement that Cat Island’s health is “iffy.”

More than three miles long, Cat Island is the western most of the Mississippi barrier islands and is different in several ways from the other barriers. It has a unique “T” shape due to the fact that it was originally part of the Mississippi River delta, a lack of replenishing sand and natural erosion.

The National Park Service purchased the west half and the south-most tip of Cat Island in 2002, and this property is now within the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The remaining portions of Cat are privately owned. The NPS has an agreement with the property owners to eventually buy the remaining part of Cat except for 150 acres.

A significant portion of the South Point that was purchased by the NPS was washed away by Katrina in 2005. A couple of sand islands that were once a part of the South Point remain above sea level.

No announcement for Cat Island restoration has been made yet.

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