Juno Beach project delays: nesting turtles go to "Plan B"

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The hopper-dredge ship R.N. Weeks pumps new sand to the beach through a large pipe

“We’re hoping they can be finished by the end of March.” Palm Beach County environmental analyst Reubin Bishop offers his assessment of progress on the Juno Beach restoration project. “They may run over into April.”

It’s a dispassionate estimate, and more than a little vague.

“They are roughly one-third to one-half done,” Bishop says. “Right now, we’re still looking at the timetable.”

However the timetable works out, it is certain to collide with a much older schedule. Right now, out in the deep water, Leatherback, Loggerhead and Green turtles are carefully navigating to South Florida as they have for generations, sometimes paddling hundreds of miles. It’s one of their last safe havens for nesting on the planet. And when they begin arriving, sometime around March 1st, they will discover their beach is a roaring, hooting construction site.

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Earth-grading machines smoothing out new sand on Juno Beach

It was supposed to be a 10-week project, and could have started anytime after November 1, the end of the 2009 turtle nesting season. But New Jersey based Weeks Marine didn’t get started until December 20th. Then, there were holdups caused by the weather and the quality of the sand.

And it’s a massive operation.

The $9 million dollar shore-protection effort is designed to replace sand lost to erosion since the last renourishment in 2001. (Experts say it will probably have to be done again about 2016.) Before they are through, Weeks will widen out 2.4 miles of Juno Beach with 56,000 dump truck loads of sand from a “borrow area” six miles south, off Singer Island.

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One group keeping an eye on the project from the start -- Reef Rescue of Palm Beach County. Director Ed Tichnor says his group began noticing problems almost immediately. Weeks was analyzing the water as required, to look for too much silt. But Reef Rescue filed complaints that the test equipment wasn’t calibrated properly and the company was checking in the wrong areas.

“We’re not against renourishment,” Tichnor explains. “We want the permit adhered to.”

Right now, he says, Weeks seems to be following the rules. In fact, Tichnor says, the fact that dredging shuts down every four hours while the dredge-hopper ship makes the run to Juno Beach keeps the silt somewhat in check.

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The dredge-hopper ship R.N. Weeks

“I feel very confident,” says Bishop, “that there won’t be any issues with the turtles on the beach.”

It’s not that he thinks crews with heavy machinery won’t cross paths with sea turtles on the beach. Rather, he’s confident there’s a plan in place to keep the turtles safe. After March 1st, Weeks will be forced to provide intense monitoring for nesting turtles.

“They’ll hire a contractor and survey the beach,” Bishop explains, “essentially hourly.”

That contractor is conveniently located right across US1 from the beach project. It’s the Loggerhead Marinelife Center. The organization declined interview requests, but released emailed statements. Here’s the first, attributed to the LMC’s Executive Director, Nanette Lawrenson: “There are many elements involved with beach renourishment. The Loggerhead Marinelife Center hopes that all will be studied and good decisions made. The LMC will assist the effort by relocating nests that are in areas of risk.”

A second statement, attributed to the Center’s research department, added an important detail -- an assessment of the potential impact. “Researchers anticipate having to move 10-20 nests as a result of the delayed completion.”

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Weeks Marine staging site, under floodlights to operate 24/7

The Marinelife Center’s study figures show the last two years have been very successful for sea turtles here. While numbers of Green turtle nests were down last year, that’s only compared to huge gains the year before. Loggerheads and Leatherbacks managed two strong nesting seasons in a row for 2008 and 2009.

So when it comes to missing the March 1st deadline, Tichnor sees the problem simply.

“I don’t know that there’s an excuse for going months past that date,” Tichnor says. “There’s no reason endangered species should suffer because of poor planning.”

Bobbette Wolesensky with Greenpeace is even more blunt.

“They should shut it down” for nesting season, she states flatly. “The turtles matter.”

Even when pressed about the potential for problems when Weeks crosses the deadline, Bishop says his money is on the turtles.

“If they come up to nest and they see all this construction equipment,” Bishop assures, “they’ll turn around, swim back out and find another place to nest.”

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