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Erosion uncovers ‘geo tubes’ on beach at John’s Island

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER

Despite tens of millions of dollars pumped into North Barrier Island sand replenishment projects over the past half-dozen years, the beachfront in John’s Island is more badly eroded now than it has been anytime in recent memory, with erosion control structures installed 50 years ago exposed for the first time in decades.

Last week, oceanfront residents reported a collection of dark plastic-wrapped bundles lining the beach at the north end of John’s Island, one of the oldest and most exclusive beach and country club communities on the island.

A reader-submitted photo of the mysterious objects looked almost like the bales of marijuana that occasionally wash up on Florida’s shores, but their placement seemed too deliberate and the number way too large.

Indian River Shores Public Safety Chief Rich Rosell said he had not received any calls about suspicious objects on that part of the beach and sent an officer to check it out. The odd objects, according to Town Manager Robbie Stabe, turned out to be a system of “geo tubes” that had been installed for erosion control.

Longtime John’s Island resident Warren Schwerin, who helped develop the private community back in the 1960s and 1970s, said the dark-green objects, which look to be wrapped in a tarp-like material, are components of a system designed to protect multimillion-dollar homes that line the oceanfront there.

“Those are sandbags installed about 50 years ago by the developer of John’s Island. Until Matthew and last week's Nor’easter, they were 5 feet below the surface,” Schwerin said.

Indian River County did not have a Public Works Department or any engineers on staff in the 1960s and so did not inspect or approve the structure. County Coastal Engineer James Gray said he was aware the devices were out there, but that he has no record of when the rudimentary barrier-style erosion-control system was installed or by whom.

“The sand filled container systems ... are not new. I don’t know the exact history of the installation as they were put in before my time with the county. However, on occasion they do become exposed following a prolonged period of rough surf or from a major storm event,” Gray said.

The erosion is worse now, post-Matthew, than it was after the major hurricanes in 2004, Schwerin said, adding that government officials need to “get on the ball” if they intend to protect the beaches that fuel the area’s economic engine.

In the dog days of summer 2004, two major hurricanes, Frances and Jeanne, battered Indian River County just a few weeks apart, devastating the island and area beaches. From 2009 to 2012, the county replenished the sand along a 6.6-mile stretch of shoreline from John’s Island to Golden Sands Park to repair damage.

The project was plagued with construction delays due to weather, equipment failures and nasty legal disputes among the subcontractors mining and placing the sand, but in the end the county considered it a success.

Just months after the project was completed, however, Hurricane Sandy roared up the coast, gobbling up countless tons of sand. The county got federal dollars to repair some of the damage to the dunes, but Hurricane Matthew was another major setback.

County officials estimate it will take more than $14 million to fix the damage Matthew did to area beaches, including nearly $6 million needed to design and construct replenished beaches within the city limits of Vero Beach

As a stop-gap move, the Vero Beach City Council was set this Tuesday to approve a $391,000 contract for a Palm Bay company to shore-up critical infrastructure at the Conn Beach area in two phases.