DAUPHIN ISLAND - The west end beach on Dauphin Island, a few miles of sand facing the
vast Gulf of Mexico, has nearly disappeared.
Now, leaders on this barrier island have a deadline to try to revitalize the battered and
eroded strip of beach.
The Town of Dauphin Island must launch a rebuilding project within seven years or lose the land
it was granted last month in a lawsuit settlement. Revitalizing this part of the west end will
require a lot of planning, sand and money - at least some of which will have to come from
outside the town's coffers, island officials said recently.
The west end beach - from the south boundaries of the private home lots down to the Gulf water
stretching across 3cm HALF miles - has shrunk from about 120 acres in the 1950s to less than 4
acres today, said one land surveyor who has studied the island recently. A few private lots
have been completely submerged in water.
"Certainly, it's a desperate situation that we're dealing with," Mayor Jeff Collier said.
"Conditions are such that we don't have the luxury of time."
The Dauphin Island Property Owners Association had owned the beach since 1954, but members of
the association voted last year to turn this property over to the town in the hopes that a
publicly owned beach would be eligible for government-funded beach renourishment. Some property
owners filed a lawsuit to block the move.
The town must complete an engineering study within five years and begin construction on a
new beach within seven years. If the town fails, the eroded land will revert back to the
Property Owners Association.
The town will face several challenges in getting the task done, including how to pay for such
a project. Town officials said local, state and federal funds will be sought. The cost of
renourishment could go up to $4 million per mile, officials have said, although it will take an
engineering study to develop a more accurate cost estimate.
Some beach nourishment projects can be led by the federal government through the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers. Other projects are implemented from the state and local levels. Many are
paid for through a combination of federal, state and local funds.
U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, said he will help Dauphin Island in its efforts to secure some
federal funding, but the island must pay for its own share of the costs.
"I am pleased that the settlement was reached, because there was no chance of getting any
federal assistance as long as the area in question was in private control," Bonner said.
"But the fact is ... no one should get big-eyed and excited about a beach renourishment
program where the federal government comes in and builds a new beach without a lot of the
responsibility still falling on the local community's shoulders."
State Rep. Spencer Collier, R-Irvington, said he also supports the island's efforts to rebuild
on the west end, but he said the only likely state funding for the project would come through
the Coastal Impact Assistance Program, a federal fund intended to compensate coastal states
for the effects of offshore oil and gas drilling.
In 2007, Alabama and its two coastal counties were allocated about $51 million for coastal
projects that included a fishing pier, land acquisition, and land restoration.
Collier said that while he understands that money is tight, the island is worth saving
because of the potential for more tourism dollars and the protection the barrier island provides
to south Mobile County during hurricanes. "It's not as simple as the beach is a beach for an elite few," Collier said. "It's a complex
problem; it's going to take a complex solution."
Barrier islands naturally change shape, grow and erode, moved by sand drifting on the westward
currents along the shore. Federal scientists who studied the Alabama-Mississippi chain of
barrier islands - including Cat, Horn, Ship, Petit Bois and Dauphin islands - have blamed their
rapid erosion on rising sea levels, more intense and frequent storms and a lack of sand supply
due to dredging of nearby ship channels.
Scott Douglass, a coastal engineer for the University of South Alabama, said any west end
renourishment would require the town to find lots of good quality, native sand to place on the
beach. Dauphin Island's sand tends to be of a larger grain and all of the pieces are about
the same size, he said. The sand is also very white, which is typical of Alabama beaches.
"The challenge is significant, and it's going to cost a lot of money," Douglass said. "We'll have
to decide where we want the island to be and put it there, and put it there in a way that it
In October, island officials announced a plan to rebuild the east end beach near Fort Gaines and
the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. The east end is the older, more stable part of the island that has a
natural dune system and pine trees.
The project would likely cost about $12.8 million. Collier said the town will continue to
pursue that restoration project. A few hundred feet of beach has eroded from that part of the
island over the past 100 years.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit by the Property Owners Association blaming west end erosion on U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers dredging practices in the Mobile Ship Channel has been pending in federal
court since 2000. One possible outcome of an ongoing settlement proceeding in that case could
be a beach renourishment project on the west end.