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Sea turtles key to future of sand trucking
BY LISA ZAHNER - STAFF WRITER (Week of February 18, 2010)

With the start of a trucked in sand replenishment project well underway and fanning out from Wabasso Beach and Golden Sands parks, local code enforcement agencies will be working overtime to protect the area’s sea turtles.

Though the official start of sea turtle nesting season is May 1, some species of sea turtles begin to nest around March 1, giving beachside residents less than two weeks to make sure it’s “lights out” at night.

As part of the sea turtle test plan being required by state and federal regulators, a preconstruction lighting survey was completed of the area -- running from Golden Sands Park to the north edge of John’s Island -- where at least 215,000 cubic yards of sand (with another 109,000 cubic yards pending approval) will be placed over the next 10 weeks.

Generally, county staff said there is good compliance with lighting ordinances within the Town of Indian River Shores and the Town of Orchid, but that the compliance of oceanfront residents in the unincorporated county is more spotty.

Biologists will be walking the beaches at daybreak each morning beginning March 1, on the lookout for sea turtles and dangers to their survival.

Each municipality has its own beach lighting ordinances with regard to sea turtles, and local code enforcement officers in charge of making sure the lighting is in compliance may issue warnings and seek corrective actions to protect the turtles. Homeowners may receive a written notice as a warning that their lights are too bright or visible from the beach.

Corrective action could be as simple as removing a light bulb, redirecting a lamp or installing window film, shades or a hood on a light. If for some reason a light cannot be shaded or redirected, homeowners may need to plant or build a barrier to block the light from reaching the beach.

Should homeowners fail to correct the lighting violations, the customary code enforcement process could impose fines and eventually liens on the property.

The two most common species of sea turtles in this area are the loggerhead the leatherback. Female sea turtles emerge from the water, lay 100 to 150 eggs at a time in a nest and then return to the ocean. After a 45- to 70-day gestation period, if the nest remains viable, the baby turtles hatch.

Upon hatching, baby sea turtles follow the reflection of the moon on the ocean to determine which way to go. Moving quickly from the nest to the water is critical for the hatchlings’ survival. If other lights are present on the shoreline, this can cause confusion and reduce survival rates.

Florida Power and Light offers information on its website for customers about lighting and sea turtles. The website states that errant lights visible from the beach mislead both female turtles nesting and returning to the water, as well as the hatchlings themselves.

The common-sense approach to determining if any of your home’s lighting poses a danger to turtles is to turn on all the lights – inside and out – and go down to the beach. If you can see a bright light from the beach, it may confuse a sea turtle.

Successful turtles equal more sand on the beach The success of this season’s sea turtles is even more crucial than usual, as the fate of Phase Two of the project from Golden Sands to Treasure Shores Park – deep within the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge -- depends on the trucked-in, inland sand being deemed as providing suitable habitat for nesting turtles.

Before turtles even have a chance to follow the reflected light of the moon, the hatchlings must be able to scramble and dig their way out from nests buried under several inches of sand.

It is yet to be proven over time that fill from upland sand mines is as turtle- friendly as native beach sand or dredged off-shore sand when it comes to nesting. Grain size, texture and composition of the fill material is important because if the sand is too fine, it can wash away, washing out turtle nests with it. If it contains too many clays or silts or becomes compacted, sea turtles could have problems digging their way to the surface.

Indian River County is being viewed as an environmental test-case by regulators, as it is the first to attempt a large-scale (6.6 miles) sand replenishment project with material from upland sand mines.

“We’ve had interest from Fort Myers and from Broward County in what we’re doing here because it’s the largest truck fill project that has ever been attempted on the beach,” said county Public Works director Chris Mora, just before the project started. “A lot of people are looking at how we’re doing it and how we’re satisfying the Army Corps of Engineers and Fish and Wildlife.”

Biologists will be conducting detailed monitoring of nesting activity in Phase One of the project this summer and comparing the data to at least two control beaches outside the construction zone where the trucked-in sand is being placed. Comparison with the “control” beaches allows for natural phenomena such as tropical storm activity to not be counted against the upland sand project.

At the end of the season on Nov. 1, regulators will decide whether or not the trucked in sand performed well enough to use it on the next stretch of beach northward.

“If the reproductive rates are not acceptable, we may have to use an off-shore sand source for the second phase of the project,” said county Coastal Engineer James Gray.

That would mean hiring an out-ofstate dredge company to pump in the sand, as has been done with the previous projects near the Sebastian Inlet and along south beach. Doing this for just half the current project could drive costs up substantially, even beyond the $15 million projected tally so far, with more add-ons to come.

County officials predict that the upland sand will do just fine, as it’s been used in small-scale projects up and down the coast. But the proof will be in the numbers and in regulators’ interpretation of those numbers.

Worst case, Gray said, if the upland sand performed miserably, the county could be forced by regulators to remove some or all of the sand as was ordered in St. Lucie county after a failed upland sand project where unprocessed sand was placed on beaches.

In planning and permitting the project currently underway, painstaking testing has been put in place to monitor the quality of the sand and prevent such a costly occurrence.