Gulf of Mexico
As the recent storm blew onshore the water came across the entire beach and right up to the houses. Before Hurricane Ian washed away the sand dunes and dune vegetation, the water was stopped before getting this far. Andrea Stetson/Correspondent

FL - New normal? Lack of dunes, vegetation has water creeping closer

Waves pounded on shore sending streams of water up to the houses on Bonita Beach. Water crept toward the beach access parking lots and formed large pools beside and under homes. It wasn’t a hurricane or even a tropical storm. It was simply a recent stormy afternoon during high tide that sent the water far beyond its usual high tide line.

When Hurricane Ian pummeled the coast in September, it demolished the sand dunes and beach vegetation that lined the back part of beaches throughout Southwest Florida. The dunes and vegetation form a natural barrier protecting homes, parking lots and roads. Now everything is flat, making it much easier for the water to keep going.

“The dunes are protection from storms,” said Kathy Worley, Director of Environmental Science and a Biologist at The Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “We  really need to get our dunes back and revitalized.”

There are plans to renourish Bonita Beach and replace the sand that was lost in the storm, but there are currently no plans for beach vegetation.

“Hurricane Ian’s storm surge removed approximately 70,000 cubic yards of sand from above the mean high-water line of Bonita Beach from approximately Beach Access #9 south to the Lee/Collier county line,” stated Lora Taylor, Director of Communications for the City of Bonita Springs. “The restoration project would replace sand removed by the storm surge.  Dune plantings are not a requirement of the project. It is anticipated to be fully permitted by the late summer, assuming it is, construction would start sometime in the fall and be finished in late spring of 2024.”

Recently Bonita Springs City Council approved using  $2,180,620.92 in state funding  to replace sand taken away by Hurricane Ian.

Collier County officials say they are working on beach renourishment this year and will focus on dunes and vegetation next year, but Taylor says right now there are no plans for dune vegetation on Bonita Beach. A few homeowners along the beach have planted their own vegetation, but no sand dunes. Well-planted and maintained dunes serve as barriers that protect against storm surge and coastal flooding. They capture sand that would otherwise blow off the beaches, and they provide important habitat for wildlife, including birds, turtles, insects, crabs, and small mammals.

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The dunes are especially helpful to nesting sea turtles. Turtle nesting season began May 1 and runs until October 31. The first nest laid on Bonita Beach his year was well beyond the high tide line, but not far enough away to protect it during a storm.

“During the storm the eggs were in the surf and rolling on the beach,” said Eve Haverfield, founder and president of Turtle Time, a non-profit group that protects sea turtles in south Lee County. “We were able to gather them up and we relocated them.”

Volunteers dug a new nest higher up on the beach and saved 82 eggs. But Haverfield has other concerns about the lack of dunes and vegetation.

“Sea turtles seek an area that is slightly elevated so they go toward the dunes so they will nest at the base or in the dunes,” Haverfield explained. “On Bonita Beach now, because we don’t have any dunes, we are very concerned about turtles crawling onto Hickory Blvd. Dunes are very, very important. Right now, the beach is really flat and low.”

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