SHALIMAR — Pending permit approval and further study, Okaloosa County officials could consider using white sand from areas instead of the controversial “OK-A” borrow site to renourish Okaloosa Island’s beach, a consultant told the County Commission on Tuesday.
The consultant, Tallahassee-based attorney Matt Leopold, served as general counsel for the state Department of Environmental Protection from 2013-15. He is now working with county officials to help ensure that future beach restoration projects use the same type of sugar white sand found on local beaches.
The commission received plenty of food for thought from Leopold at the beach sand workshop. During his presentation, he noted how sand from the OK-A site off of Okaloosa Island was used for Eglin Air Force Base and west Destin beach restoration projects in 2010 and 2013, respectively.
In January 2012, the previous County Commission scrapped a plan to use OK-A sand for a $12-million, 2.8-mile Okaloosa Island beach restoration project after condo owners contested in court the color and quality of the sand. That rejection took place even though the then-secretary of the DEP had issued a final order to approve a county permit to restore the beach.
None of the current commissioners was serving on the board at the time.
Leopold said about half of the beach-side property owner “stakeholders” he has recently talked with support using OK-A sand for future Okaloosa Island beach sand projects, and about half oppose such use. He noted that most of those stakeholders were among the audience in the almost full commission chambers Tuesday.
Some supporters “are very sensitized to storm-surge issues and have lived through the hurricanes of the past,” Leopold said. “They know that the only way to offer storm-surge protection is to build up the beach. They also said that sand from the OK-A site is of sufficient quality” but are open to investigating other sources.
Opponents prefer considering sand sources other than the OK-A site, Leopold said.
Last October, the DEP extended the county’s state permit for beach restoration to February 2027. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is now reviewing the federal permit that the county also needs to perform beach renourishment.
A primary issue the Corps is looking at is whether an Okaloosa Island beach restoration project would adversely affect sea turtles and other endangered species. The Corps’ overall review could last up to a year.
“It would serve everyone’s interest to have a permit in hand in case of a catastrophic storm,” Leopold said.
Other than the OK-A site, possible sources of sand include the East Pass and a borrow site south of the pass, he said. The sugar white sand used to stabilize Destin’s Norriego Point came from the East Pass, which the Corps dredges about every two years, Leopold said.
Leopold noted that Okaloosa Island’s beach has been gradually and naturally growing since 2007, which is the year after Hurricane Dennis hit the Emerald Coast. For example, some of the sand that had been washed out to sea during prior storms has been returning to the beach via wave action, he said.
In a 2016 survey, Jacksonville-based Taylor Engineering found that the roughly three miles of developed beach on Okaloosa Island had increased by an average of 52.7 feet in the last 10 years with the addition of about 172,000 cubic yards of sand.
The firm’s report called that progress “typical of beach and shoreline recovery during calm periods.” It also noted that the beach recovery has not come close to restoring all the sand that was lost from the mid-1990’s through 2007, when more than 672,000 cubic yards of beach was carried away.
The report estimated the beach has lost nearly 774,000 cubic yards of sand since Hurricane Opal in 1995.
“Will (naturally occurring beach growth) continue to pre-Opal status if we do nothing?” Leopold asked Tuesday. “It’s not likely if we do nothing to assist the beach.”
Commissioner Nathan Boyles wondered whether the county should restore the beach now or focus on getting the permitting in place for a post-hurricane, “fix it when it’s broken” approach. Commissioner Kelly Windes indicated he doesn’t think the county will go through another 10 years of being storm-free.
Commission Chairwoman Carolyn Ketchel said the county should concentrate on being prepared to deal with the aftermath of storms rather than starting beach renourishment now. Commissioners Graham Fountain and Trey Goodwin agreed, while also stating that more study is needed on the sources of the sand.