Sandy beaches and barrier islands are important economic, environmental and
quality-of-life assets in south Alabama. But nationwide, Dauphin Island has become the
poster child for unwise coastal development and the folly of living on a barrier island.
Indeed, it has been cast in the national media as an example of the long-term
fate of all developed barrier islands.
The island has been cut in two pieces and the western portion of "east Dauphin Island"
overwashes repeatedly as hurricanes pass even hundreds of miles to the south. Many of the
homes there have been destroyed, and all have been damaged multiple times by storm surge
overwash and waves in the past decade.
The collapse of the west end of the island exposes the soft underbelly of the marshes
of south Mobile County and Bayou La Batre to bigger waves, more erosion and higher storm surges.
This will cause problems with the built infrastructure as well as oyster beds and fishing.
The beaches of the easternmost mile of the island have eroded over 700 feet to the north in
the past few decades. Many of the changes to Dauphin Island are natural fluctuations.
The migration of Sand Island onto Dauphin Island by the fishing pier has happened before --
roughly 300 and 150 years ago -- and it is right on schedule again.
This is one natural way that the island heals itself. Much of the island's damage has occurred
in storms. But blaming storms for beach erosion is a bit like blaming gravity for plane crashes.
Yes, gravity pulled the plane out of the sky, but there was obviously something wrong with the
plane just before it fell.
There are only three proven ways to save the island's beaches, and some combination of these
must be pursued.
One way is to back off, to retreat. Moving construction back away from the eroding shoreline
and away from hazardous overwash areas provides a sandy buffer between the surf and the
buildings and lets the natural processes occur without damaging things.
Most of the eastern end of the island, including the old town center, is protected by some
of the largest dunes on the Gulf of Mexico. But elsewhere on the island, unless we are willing
to permanently remove our houses, condos and businesses, some combination of the other two
proven approaches -- beach nourishment and sand bypassing -- are required.
The island is downdrift of the Mobile Ship Channel, one of the largest sand thieves in America.
More than 20 million cubic yards of sand have been permanently removed from the island's beach
sand system needlessly by the ship channel.
Sand dredged from the outer bar of the ship channel must be "bypassed," i.e. placed on the
beaches or in shallow water so that it can migrate quickly to the island's beaches.
The deficit of sand imposed by this tremendous withdrawal of sand over the past few decades
should be replaced. Dauphin Island should really just be the poster child for the folly of
living downdrift of a federal navigation channel.
Beach nourishment has restored the beaches of Baldwin County and more than 350 miles of other
beaches throughout the country, and it can restore the beaches of Dauphin Island.
A well-engineered beach restoration plan is not like the disastrous, so-called FEMA berms
that have been constructed twice on the island in the past decade. There is no way those could
have worked. They violated some of the principles of successful coastal engineering.
Essentially, they were attempts to stack sand on the beach unnaturally, and as such were doomed
Beaches take a certain shape in response to waves and tides and good coastal engineering
tries to replicate those natural shapes. With limited resources, we must spend all available
money on well-engineered projects that will succeed.
American beach communities with erosion problems that survive and thrive have one common
characteristic -- everyone is on board with the need for sand bypassing and beach nourishment.
For Dauphin Island, this means the residents, the elected town government, the Park and Beach
Board, the business community and the property owners' association as well as the Alabama State
Port Authority and all the county, state and federal elected officials who represent the area.
Successful beach restoration projects in America are like a three-legged stool. The legs are
the good engineering, the financing and the public perception. Without three strong legs, the
To convince citizens and elected officials to financially support island beach restoration,
public access to the beaches of the island could be provided at every street end.
The new, open beach provided by the town is a step in the right direction. Unless public
access to the island's beaches is improved, it is likely that the best solutions will not be
politically possible and the island beaches will continue to deteriorate for another generation.
Scott L. Douglass is the author of the book "Saving America's
Beaches: The Causes of and Solutions to Beach Erosion" and is a professor
of civil engineering at the University of South Alabama.