GULF SHORES, Ala. — Work is under way to completely reopen Little Lagoon pass for the first time since early May, when it was sealed off to prevent oil from intruding on the ecologically sensitive estuary.
With little more than the occasional tarball washing ashore, city officials have decided to do away with the sandy dams that have isolated the lagoon since shortly after the Gulf oil spill erupted.
“There’s no evidence that there’s anything coming in that would contaminate the lagoon,” Mayor Robert Craft said.
In early July, crews began briefly moving huge mounds of sand to allow water to flush out of the lagoon during outgoing tides via a channel carved west of the inlet. Two weeks ago, when the brackish lagoon brimmed with rainwater from recent storms, the city flushed it again.
Craft said that crews plan to fully clear the spillway directly south of the pass during next week’s neap tide, when the high water is at its lowest and workers can excavate sand more easily.
Water rushing out of the lagoon has taken care of most of the berm built at the northern end of the pass, carrying away more than half of the 16,000 cubic yards of sand that was placed there.
There is some debate, Craft said, between the city and BP PLC about what to do with several layers of boom that are strung between the sea walls that form the pass, as well as what’s left of the berm.
“They want to get all that stuff out and clean it,” Craft said. “There’s a certain value in our mind to leaving some of that stuff behind in case we have a hurricane.”
Regardless of what happens in the future, city officials have received high praise for their efforts to keep oil of out the 2,225-acre estuary, which serves as an aquatic nursery and fosters species ranging from octopuses and squid to speckled trout and flounder.
“I give the city an A-plus on how they handled this,” said Dennis Hatfield, vice president of the Little Lagoon Preservation Society. “We may be the only place in Alabama that didn’t get any oil.”
Hatfield’s advocacy group stepped up its testing of the lagoon’s waters this summer, monitoring the dissolved oxygen, salinity and bacteria levels that indicate the water body’s ability to sustain its abundant life.
Historically, the lagoon has endured long stretches in which it was isolated from the Gulf of Mexico. Hatfield said that aside from a few bacterial anomalies, the lagoon showed no ill effects this summer.
There still may be periodic landfalls of tarballs in the Gulf Shores area and patches of sheen. But spillage from septic tanks — which can occur with the kind of high water levels seen during late August’s storms — may be more harmful than a small amount of weathered oil that slipped through the pass.
Of the inlet’s opening Hatfield said, “The consensus is it’s a good thing and it’s a good time for it.”