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USF researcher studies sand-blocking issue in John's Pass

madiera beach-sand blockage1.jpg
madiera beach-sand blockage2.jpg
Posted at 5:50 PM, Feb 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-24 18:00:49-05

MADEIRA BEACH, Fla. — We’ve been telling you for months about sand blocking issues at John’s Pass, one of Pinellas County’s top tourist destinations.

The sand buildup is eliminating waterfront property and overtaking boat slips, creating headaches for business owners who rely on the waterfront property, and safety issues on the water as the current gets stronger.

But a six-month study is in the works, funded by Hubbard’s Marina, the City of Madeira Beach, Pinellas County and FDOT, meant to come up with a solution to the sand build-up. That study is currently in its second month.

RELATED: Madeira Beach businesses, city officials frustrated over county response to John's Pass sand-blocking

That’s where Dr. Ping Wang comes into the equation. He’s a coastal researcher at USF, and the lead on the study into what exactly is causing sand to deposit, and what the best solution is to get rid of it.

“We also did studies at other inlets. So the sand deposit along this side of the inlet, we call it updrift side. So that sand is moving from north to south, so this is like updrift side of the inlet, and there is a tendency of sand deposit on updrift side of the inlet, so this sedimentation issue is not really unique for John’s Pass,” said Dr. Ping Wang, a coastal research professor at USF.

But what is unique about John’s Pass, is it’s a highly rated tourist spot that thrives on water access, and sand is eliminating that.

“You can see the cloud of sediment get picked up in the water column, and then the flood tide kind of take it into the inlet,” said Dr. Wang.

Dr. Wang has obtained aerial photos of John’s Pass dating back to 1926.

John's Pass in 1926

John’s Pass looked a lot different back then. No real development lined Madeira Beach or John’s Pass at the time, but fast forward just a few decades and that all started to change.

By the late 50s, you can see sand build-up to the west of where it is now.

John's Pass in 1957

But a dredge project in the 60s seemingly got rid of it.

John's Pass in 1962

That is until the late 90s, when the sand started to build outside Hubbard’s Marina.

John's Pass in 1998

FDOT's bridge construction wrapped up in 2010, and here's what the sand buildup looked like then:

John's Pass in 2010

One of the most recent aerial images was taken from the ABC Action News chopper, Action Air One, the day after Tropical Storm Eta. While this image was not taken at low tide, you can still see the amount of sand buildup underneath the shallow water.

John's Pass in 2020

“Sedimentation is a natural process, it does interact with all these different structures that we have here, so we want to understand how they interact,” said Dr. Wang.

Using a computer model, he and his team are able to do that.

“I can take out the bridge to see how the flow looks like, I can, let’s say remove this sand, see how the flow looks like,” said Dr. Wang.

Of course, Dr. Wang would never present a solution of removing the bridge, nor is he suggesting that is the sole reason for the problem, but the computer simulation allows him to see how much of the sand buildup is, perhaps, caused by the bridge.

Through all of this, Dr. Wang and his team are working to come up with solutions for business owners who are fighting for their livelihood.

“If these two slips fill in with sand, we’ll not be able to operate,” said Dustin Oneal, Owner of Sunshine Scenic Tours, a waterfront business in John’s Pass Village.

“If my business leaves, that is a huge impact on, not only John’s Pass Village, but the city, and the whole real area, because taxes and tax schedules will have to increase,” said Capt. Dylan Hubbard, Owner of Hubbard’s Marina.

RELATED: 45 John's Pass business owners beg city to fix sand blocking issue, cite safety concerns

But there is some good news in all of this.

“This is not a very difficult problem to solve,” said Dr. Wang.

However, Dr. Wang wants to make sure it’s done right.

“The obvious solution would be to just remove this sand, but to what extent and to what extent should we remove this sand, and how do we make sure whichever area that we influence won’t have any impact to the entire inlet,” said Dr. Wang.

Dr. Wang says it’s likely that the solution will be more of a maintenance plan, getting rid of the sand every few decades.

“Every solution we come up with, we should not really expect that it’ll last forever. It may last for like 20-30 years, or 10-20 years,” said Dr. Wang.

Business owners say if that’s the case, they want a contract with the county and state entities to make sure they don’t have to fight this battle again.

Dr. Wang expects this study to wrap up sometime in June.