A series of breakwaters are planned across the mouth of Morningstar Bay on St. Thomas in a bid to restore the beach and protect the shoreline and the Marriott resort against future storms and sea level rise.
The St. Thomas Coastal Zone Management Committee approved modifications to the major CZM permit for the work at an hours-long meeting Tuesday evening, held via Zoom.
The beach – part of the Frenchman’s Reef and Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort property – was decimated in the twin Category 5 storms of September 2017. While it is slowly recovering, it will not fully return without human intervention, said Jacqueline Brower, a coastal engineer with Moffatt & Nichol in Fort Lauderdale, which is designing the project.
The 2017 storms were so powerful that the waves pulled most of the beach into the ocean, and in 2019 Hurricane Dorian, while not a significant event for the U.S. Virgin Islands, was enough to undo what little had recovered, said Brower.
“It’s a series of events that build on each other,” said Brower.
With sea levels projected to rise and storms to intensify in the coming decades due to global warming, “it’s only going to get worse and worse,” said Amy Dempsey, president of Bioimpact, another consultant on the project.
The project will cost the resort owner about $7 million, according to Dustin Messerly of project manager PDSI. The resort owner was formerly DiamondRock and is now CREF3 USVI Hotel Owner Inc. after the CZM committee approved the name change along with the permit modifications in a 3 to 1 vote.
The plan calls for three artificial reef breakwaters to be constructed across the bay about 300 feet from the beach, as well as two shoreline “armoring revetments” – essentially raised, curved platforms of stone and sand about 8 feet in elevation on the western and eastern ends of the beach that also will serve to protect inland infrastructure, according to Brower.
A similar design her company created for the Four Seasons Resort in Nevis in 2000 has worked well for 22 years and preserved the beach during the 2017 storms, Brower said. Another, at Adrenaline Beach in Labadee, Haiti, suffered no damage in Irma and Maria, she said.
As a condition of the permit modification, the breakwaters will be lighted during construction, with permanent lighting as part of the finished design, and a notice to mariners will be published in local newspapers 14 days prior to the start of the work.
Swim buoys will be anchored in the sandy bottom beside the breakwaters, as well as swim lines that will stretch between them but can be removed for boat access, according to the plans presented Tuesday.
The work, as well as plans for nine watersheds in the area to divert runoff through native grasses and trees, so it is filtered and absorbed before it reaches the sea, is expected to take about 4 months, in line with the resort’s planned October opening, according to Messerly.
According to Dempsey, plans are to plant corals around the breakwaters, to renourish the marine environment and provide recreation for snorkelers. Currently, the bay is all sandy bottom, with any sea grasses wiped out by the 2017 storms, she said.
The buildings fronting the beach were formerly the Morning Star section of the resort, but will now be known as Noni Beach, a property of the Marriott’s high-end Autograph collection, according to attorney Adriane Dudley, representing the resort owner. Speaking to concerns by Committee Chair Winston Adams that the traditional names such as Honeymoon Beach will be lost, Dudley said they will be affixed to signs throughout the property to reflect its history.
The breakwaters are designed to change the “wave climate” in the bay, dampening the action so that the shoreline is preserved, and the beach has a chance to recover, said Brower, though renourishment is still recommended.
Because it is important to use the same type of sand as is existing on the beach, or it could just wash away, the main source for any renourishment will be what is dredged when the revetments are constructed, said Brower. Should they need to purchase sand, Barbuda has been identified as a source that would be a good match, she said.
Other conditions of the permit modification are that at least one shoreline access be maintained during construction of the breakwaters, that territorial and federal sediment control measures are implemented, that the Coastal Zone Management and Fish and Wildlife divisions of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources be notified 72 hours prior to the start of work, and that a sea turtle-friendly lighting plan for the inland structures be submitted within 90 days and implemented within 6 months of occupancy.
Committee members approving the permit modifications were Karl Percell, Kai Smith and Jawanza Hillaire. Voting against was Winston Adams.
“You have closed a major hole in the economy of the Virgin Islands with this step,” said Dudley in thanking the committee for approving the modifications.
In other business, the CZM committee unanimously approved plans by the National Park Service to repair and rehabilitate its Red Hook Administration Building that was damaged in the 2017 hurricanes. The National Park Service presented the plans at a CZM public hearing in November.