Port A beach dilemma rages on

March 2, 2006

pictureHow many coastal geologists does it take to change a beach maintenance policy?

Perhaps the answer is only one in the case of Port Aransas and its practice of using front-end loaders and dump trucks to remove sand from the base of its dunes or from the mid-beach area and redistribute it. The goal here is to create a smoother firmer path for cars and trucks. It's important to the city's tourism trade and quality of life to provide beachgoers vehicle access on the seashore. To achieve this, city officials have for years provided a permanent path cordoned off with bollards to separate cars from people on the stretch of beach within its jurisdiction.

I've endorsed a similar plan for a section of Padre Island, as a compromise to a proposal that would prohibit vehicles on the sand near the seawall and Packery Channel. But if the result of such a path would compromise the natural dune growth, then I would withdraw this offer of compromise and return to my original position of no restrictions. This column is not about that though.

This is about the dilemma Port Aransas faces, trying to preserve its beach/dune dynamics while maintaining a driveable seashore. Make no mistake, nowhere in this debate is a suggestion to stop the flow of traffic on the beach. In talking with folks in Port Aransas, it seems that some residents and officials believe that protecting the dunes could be synonymous with either restricting tourism, eliminating beach traffic or both. Fear, not reason or reality, seems to have spawned this misconception.

In this case some people fear that this threat is coming from Coastal Geologist Richard Watson, a Port Aransas resident, who has been warning whoever will listen for some time now about the folly of thwarting the natural dune process. He does not favor vehicle restrictions.

Watson has garnered a fair share of disciples who trust his science, including me. I've spoken with other geologists about the danger of scraping sand from the face of dunes and taken it from an area immediately seaward of the dunes. And they say this is like stealing food from a growing child. Without the nourishment of new sand, the dunes will not replenish. They say that more is better when it comes to protecting against coastal flooding behind the dunes. Dunes are the seawalls of Port Aransas. But the beach fuels its economy.

Geologists offer valuable insight to policy makers trying to balance scientific opinions with a community's need for safe and reliable beach access. Port Aransas could not with good conscious invite visitors to a beach that is too narrow, too deep or unsafe.

And while city officials might recognize the inherent risks of limiting dune growth, they understand that some degree of risk is part of barrier-island living. This is as much a risk-management issue as it is about science, economics and culture.

Nobody knows for sure how to measure or predict the relative benefit that continued dune production in Port Aransas might provide. But Watson certainly is qualified to address this issue, based on his resume, which is too long to recount here. But when he offered to serve on the city's beach maintenance committee, he said he was denied.

Most likely, personalities got in the way. But to be fair, if part of this committee's charge is to examine Watson's research and theories, then he could not serve in an objective capacity. Port Aransas Mayor Georgia Neblett tells me the committee's goal is to suggest a new beach maintenance program that provides for a healthy dune system while maintaining a viable driving path and which includes plans to deal with the influx of sand from storms and the annual accumulation of seaweed.

City officials have invited Watson to provide insight.

But while Watson's credentials didn't get him a full seat on the committee, his enthusiasm and voice did play a role in its inception. And he's gotten the attention of folks at the Texas General Land Office. GLO officials say the outspoken scientist is an "entirely credible critic" of Port Aransas' beach maintenance practices. GLO spokesman, Jim Suydam said the attention Watson has focused on Port Aransas has helped drive the agency to hire yet another geologist to examine his research while helping to craft new statewide guidelines.

At the same time, Suydam views Port Aransas as a responsible steward of its resource and a valuable source of perspective. He said the city is not breaking any rules, a point Watson disputes with good reason. And Suydam said the state's improved and flexible plan would address both the science of beaches and the reality of beach communities.

"Clearly there's room for improvement," Suydam said.

Just so you know, state policy prohibits any practice that would weaken the dunes or reduce the protective function of them. GLO policy further prohibits activities that would significantly redistribute sand or alter the beach profile at the vegetation line. State rules also strongly discourage the use of machines to redistribute beach sand, except during peak visitation times when the natural ebb and flow of sand might be interrupted or otherwise disturbed.

Obviously, I favor vehicle access on beaches. And I'm a strong advocate of dune preservation. Could we maintain both? I wouldn't trust anyone who says they have the perfect solution.

Outdoors writer David Sikes' column appears Thursdays and Sundays. Contact him at 886-3616 or HYPERLINK