The incredible shrinking island - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

The incredible shrinking island

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It's a national wildlife refuge, a state park, home to a working lighthouse and the harbor pilots who guide ships in and out of Tampa Bay.

Positioned strategically at the mouth of Tampa Bay, Egmont Key is also a favorite for local boaters and a nursery for countless sea and shorebirds and sea turtles.

Thousands of birds cover the southern end of the island, virtually an avian nursery for all kinds of local and migratory species.

National Wildlife Refuge specialist Gisela Chapa says they just did a count.

"Our biologist did a survey last month and she estimates we have about 32,000 nesting pairs of birds," Chapa said.

But the people behind "Save Egmont Key" say this Tampa Bay treasure is disappearing right before our eyes. The island that used to be more than 500 acres is now less than 200 acres and dwindling fast.

Assistant Park Manager Tom Watson, who lives on the island, sees what's happening firsthand.

"This habitat is shrinking daily. A few feet every night. A few yards every week," Watson said.

Palm trees are dying and littering the beaches, making it difficult for sea turtles to come ashore to lay their eggs.

And it's not just wildlife that's losing ground. Jim Spangler, a past president of the Egmont Key Alliance, says a lot of local history is at stake.

"Lots of history about the island that to me would be a real tragedy if it disappeared," Spangler said.


Spangler added the history of Fort Dade dates way back, even before the Spanish-American War. Now, many of those historic batteries are underwater.

Spangler points to a wall of sand now over his head in a few spots. It's a wall, he says the next storm could breach, splitting the island in two.

"It's the last line of defense on the island. This is the last thing that is keeping wave action from breaking over the island and in effect, creating a future John's Pass," Spangler said.

Spangler says if Egmont Key were to be split by Mother Nature, erosion would speed up even faster.

"And what we would be concerned about is that South Egmont would become like Passage Key. Passage Key's totally disappeared," he said.

The solution to stabilizing Egmont Key isn't just more sand. If all goes as planned, the island will get that next year when the nearby shipping channel is dredged. The Army Corps of Engineers recommends a giant wall of sheet pile on the northwest side of the island.

"Save Egmont Key" volunteer Dave Howard says that would keep deposited sand in place and hopefully slow down the erosion.

"It would be literally buried in sand and when the top of the wall is exposed, it's like a red flag, time to renourish. So this sheet pile would simply ensure that we don't lose any more than up to that piling," Howard said.

But with an $11 million price tag, and no congressional funding in sight, the future of Egmont Key is uncertain at best.

"I don't think there's any place that will take its place if Egmont Key goes," Howard said.


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