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Hillsborough's eroding jewel

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image Beach erosion at E.G. Simmons Park is unmistakable, with a portion of the beach reduced to stumps and roots and sand cliffs forming at the bases of trees. Photos Mitch Traphagen

That E.G. Simmons Park exists could be thought of as a miracle.

By Mitch Traphagen

Hillsborough County is home to 176 neighborhood parks, 10 regional parks, 265 athletic fields and 40 recreation centers. What is arguably the crown jewel of that collection is located in South Hillsborough. E.G. Simmons Park in Ruskin provides the only public beach access in the entire county. That beach, however, is disappearing.

That E.G. Simmons Park exists could be thought of as a miracle. Somehow, it managed to survive decades of booms and busts, the former of which invariably involved rampant and nearly unrestrained development. Waterfront property is at a premium and the park offers some of the best on Tampa Bay. Yet the 258 acres of the park not only survived since the mid-1960s, but also grew with an additional 200 acres added to be preserved as a bird and wildlife sanctuary.

Rather than threaten the park, the boom years brought some measures of improvement. The boat ramp was dramatically improved and docks were added. The park boasts 87 campsites and a large group camp area. Ironically, except for those fishing and launching fishing boats, it is possible the park is more popular with snowbirds packing campers and RVs into the campground than it is with natives. The boom years also ushered in a two-dollar per carload admission fee, a small price to pay, perhaps, but possibly enough to counter the spontaneity of a trip to the beach, the trails or the playground for some residents.

The solitude is part of the charm of the park. Birds and other wildlife abound and the fingers of dry land surrounded by wetlands that intertwine through the park invite exploration.

And at the end of it all, is a beach, a quiet beach for more than a million county residents. It is uniquely beautiful and it is almost always sparsely populated. But today, at least half of it is gone.Wildlife at E.G. Simmons Park

Beach erosion has long been a problem on that small piece of Tampa Bay coastline. The problem, however, was worsened last summer during Tropical Storm Debby, a storm that did not directly hit the area but that had wind and surge effects that lingered for days. When the storm passed, it seemed as though it took some of the Simmons Park beach with it, leaving behind an inhospitable surface of roots and stumps and small cliffs at the edges of palm trees.

Tropical Storm Debby hit the Gulf beaches hard, a problem that was made urgent by the then-upcoming Republican National Convention where the Tampa Bay area would be in the eyes of millions upon millions of people. The money and time required to replenish a beach can be staggering and the results short-lived. All that it takes is another storm in the wrong place to undo the work of all of those dollars. But it is the beaches for which Florida is known, the beaches are seen as an economic powerhouse and a magnet for money-spending tourists. Invariably, the money is planted in the shifting sands.

Tucked away in a corner in Hillsborough County, there currently are no plans to replenish the beach at E.G. Simmons Park. But that doesn’t mean it is being ignored.

“We are very much aware of the situation along the shoreline at E.G.Simmons Park,” said Mark Thornton, director of Parks Recreation and Conservation for Hillsborough County.

“Our staff has been monitoring this for several years.”

The focus is on slowing or stopping the problem of erosion.

“We are currently working on solutions to the erosion taking place along this area of the bay,” Thornton continued. “We have a project currently under review at Apollo Beach Nature Preserve. Should the planned erosion control systems prove to be affective we will look to install them along the EG Simmons Park shoreline. These systems are Wave Action Dissipating Systems where the energy from the wind and waves is reduced thereby reducing the erosion of the shoreline. We have a project for this at E.G. Simmons Park planned in the fiscal year 2014 budget. Should that get approved in the budget this year, we will be working to put this in place during 2014.”

Steve McGlockin, a legislative aide to Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan confirmed that the county’s focus is on addressing the ongoing problem, but not replacing the beach that has been lost. He also mentioned that the Board of County Commissioners is aware of the problem.

“They are very aware of it and have a project for the fiscal year 2014 capital improvement program that would address the erosion, but probably not re-nourishment. That would have to occur through natural accretion,” he said.

“Natural accretion” means the beach will have to come back on its own, through natural forces. For the most part, that means it will be subject to the whims of nature. But then again, it already is.

In the meantime, the beach at one of the county’s crown jewels of public space is still there, a little scarred, perhaps, but beautiful nonetheless. With birds, wildlife, palm trees and solitude, it is a microcosm of what many believe makes Florida, Florida. At E.G. Simmons Park, half the beach may be gone but the glass remains half full, at least as long as care is taken to preserve it.

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