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Sebastian Inlet dredging starts

27 March 2007 - Click Here for November 2011 Update

Source: Author Jim Waymer, FLORIDA TODAY

An Ellicott® Series 970 dredge  owned by SubAqueous Services on the job in Florida

SEBASTIAN - Boat captains have run aground on the threatened seagrass for decades. But soon they can kick back and relax a bit as they coast through the dredged channel of a safer inlet, now notorious as one of the most treacherous in Florida.

After winning a decade-long struggle for a federal permit, the Sebastian Inlet District this week begins $5 million in dredging to restore hurricane-eroded beach and to forge a deepwater passage for the first time between the inlet and Indian River Lagoon's main boating channel, the Intracoastal Waterway.

An Ellicott® Series 970 "Dragon" model dredge from SubAqueous Services Inc. of Orlando, the "C-WAY," was expected to begin pumping sand onto the beach late Monday, relocating enough to fill about 6,000 dump trucks. In the first phase, the dredge will suck up sand from a 42-acre underwater area just west of the inlet and pipe it onto about 2.5 miles of beach -- from a half-mile to just over three miles south of the inlet.

The estimated $1.5 million to $2 million in dredging this week returns beach sand that hurricanes stripped away in 2004. In a second phase in late April, the district will dredge a new $3 million, 9-foot-deep channel to connect the inlet to the Intracoastal.

Boaters now pass across a shallow area between the inlet and the Intracoastal. When passing over this shallow zone, boaters often chew up the rare seagrass and occasionally damage their boats. The channel should prevent damage to the sensitive shoals and allow more saltwater to flush the lagoon through the inlet.

This week, the Ellicott® cutter dredge begins carving out about six feet of sand from the existing sand trap inside the inlet. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is paying about 90 percent of the cost of that projectº because it repairs erosion caused by hurricanes. The district and Indian River County will share the rest of the cost.

"All this sand is being placed above mean high water," said Martin Smithson, director of the Sebastian Inlet District. "This is a project that's going to minimize the potential for the ocean to wash it away."

Next year, Indian River County plans to pump another 150,000 cubic yards of sand onto the same beach, using sand from nearby offshore shoals. Next month, the dredge will create the new 3,120-foot-long channel, 100 feet wide and 9 feet deep, connecting the inlet to the Intracoastal..

The new channel brings relief to boat captains, who have endured a shallow water passage when traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Intracoastal.

"There have been people (who) have lost their outdrives," said Capt. Ron Rincones of Valkaria, who runs a charter boat and uses the inlet often.

A few have even lost their lives, sinking and drowning in the powerful currents that rip through the inlet during outgoing tides.

The district got a state permit to dredge the inlet to the Intracoastal in 1996, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refused to issue a dredging permit due to concerns about threatened Johnson's seagrass that surrounds the inlet's interior. The new channel will destroy about 1.6 acres of Johnson's seagrass habitat from an area where grass covers 27 to 38 percent of the bottom. To make up for the damage, the district must cut segments of seagrass that lie in the way of the new channel and use them to repair areas where boat propellers have scarred the lagoon bottom.

The district also must spend $750,000 for stormwater treatment improvements to the main release canal in Vero Beach. Any construction on the beach must be complete by May 1, the beginning of sea turtle nesting season.

"It's the only inlet on Florida's East Coast that does not connect to the Intracoastal Waterway," Smithson said. The new channel also creates a wider route for ocean water to flush out pollution and foster diverse species in the lagoon, he said. "It does provide flushing, but more importantly it provides the inlet of salt water that makes the estuary so unique," Smithson said.

Captains such as Rincones, however, look forward to a less stressful ride through the new channel with less chance of running aground.

"It's been a project that we've needed for 25 years," he said.

Excerpted from "FLORIDA TODAY"

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