Pensacola Water Tower
Water tower at Pensacola Beach.

Pensacola Beach Nourishment Project

Dale H. Easley

May 21, 2003

Over Easter break, my family and I went to Pensacola Beach, FL. We like to stay in an old hotel right on the beach. However, after being there a little while, it occurred to us that it certainly seemed farther to the ocean than last year. No doubt we're getting older, but age alone seemed an unlikely explanation. In fact, our previous experience indicated that each year the ocean got closer to the hotel, not farther away!

Offshore dredge
Dredge near beach.
Early the next morning, I awakened before the kids for a walk down the beach. I like to make some coffee, go to the nearby pier, and stroll out to watch the waves and see if the fish are biting. As I strolled out on the pier and looked east, I saw a large boat close to shore, unlike any I'd seen near the beach before. Nearby on the beach were large metal pipes. Bulldozers rumbled over where tourists usually sunbathed. As I asked around, I discovered that Pensacola Beach was undergoing a major beach renourishment program. Hurricanes Erin and Opal in 1995, Georges in 1998, and Tropical Storms Hanna, Isidore, and Lilli in 2002 all eroded the beach, so much so that the State of Florida designated Pensacola Beach as a critically eroded shoreline. Approximately $20 million were now being spent to widen an 8.5 mile stretch of the beach.

Pipe for sand onto Pensacola Beach
Seeding of the beach with new sand.
Besides erosion due to storms, beach loss occurs due to natural subsidence, sea level rise, and longshore currents. The beaches of the northern Gulf of Mexico lie upon thick packets of sediment deposited throughout millions of years of streamflow. These sediments continue to consolidate and dewater, reducing their volume and leading to subsidence. Not surprisingly, the sediments that subside the most are the newest geologically, such as nearshore barrier islands, including Santa Rosa Island where Pensacola Beach is located (Click for map.). Many of these sediments have been deposited and reworked since the last ice age, about 18,000 years ago, a short time ago geologically. It is natural for coastal sediments to move. In the northern Gulf of Mexico, the predominant current is east to west, causing sediments to migrate in a westward direction. Offshore islands tend to erode on their eastern end and build on their westward end. In addition to these currents, sea level rise has modified coastlines. Islands become more frequently overtopped by water during storms, leading to more erosion. Old shorelines become submerged. A submerged shoreline is the source of sand for the restoration project at Pensacola Beach. Sand from about 65 feet water depth is used to replace sand lost to erosion. The sand was chosen because of its location and to approximate the color and physical characteristics of sand already present on the beach. A barge is used to churn up the sand which is mixed with water so as to create a slurry. That slurry is pumped through large pipes onto the beach. Once there, bulldozers place and smooth the sand, creating new beach several tens of feet into the ocean.

Pensacola Beach
Note width of new beach being constructed. Pier is in background.
Protecting coastal zones is crucial to us here in Louisiana. Barrier islands, similar to Santa Rosa Island, and coastal wetlands protect us from hurricanes. The Louisiana coast is also incredibly rich in resources and culture. We have the US's busiest port (by volume), more offshore oil wells than Texas, the second greatest concentration in the world of petrochemical plants, a huge seafood industry, and cities that tourists flock to. In our efforts to protect coastal Louisiana, we must seek to understand the successes and failures of efforts throughout the U.S. As the Pensacola project progresses and our family beach vacations continue, I'll try to add new photos and observations to this site.

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