A sargassum seaweed invasion, problem boaters, and issues securing FEMA authorization to rebuild a bathhouse destroyed by Hurricane Irma were all on the table at a meeting of the Magens Bay Authority board on Friday.
The boating issues have been ongoing since March 2020 as more and more charter yachts have sought to anchor in Magens Bay during a pandemic that has largely prevented them from traveling to neighboring Caribbean destinations.
Authority General Manager Hubert Brumant said that while the Department of Planning and Natural Resources has in the past assured him that it keeps a list of vessels and their occupants and visits bays weekly to ensure boats are on its manifest and have the required anchoring permits, he has learned that is not always the case.
“I found out personally that that is not correct,” Brumant told the board on Friday. “I have interviewed a few of the boaters that are in our bay and, as a matter of fact, some of them have no permits. They were just told by the charters that Magens Bay was an area, real cool, real nice, that they could just come in and they could stay overnight.”
Brumant said that while he reports such incidents to DPNR, which regulates boaters in the territory, “they always respond that they have no manpower. This is the dilemma we’re being faced with.”
While the authority and DPNR have discussed stationing a vessel at Magens Bay to improve the department’s response capabilities, that has yet to materialize, said Brumant.
“I was hoping that it would have been pretty soon, based on our discussions,” said board member Dayle Barry, who asked Brumant to get a timeframe for the vessel’s arrival when he next speaks with DPNR.
Board Chairwoman Katina Coulianos said Magens Bay and Smith Bay, which the authority also manages, also are restricted navigation areas. In the case of Magens Bay, the restricted area stretches from Picaro Point at the tip of Peterborg, diagonally across the bay to Lerkenlund Bay, she said.
“It is a big piece of the bay that is restricted for speed. That kind of statement carries over to why we don’t allow jet skis and other fast-moving things. … We see boats coming in – not necessarily the charter boats that are anchored, they seem to come in at a reduced speed – but I see other boats coming in, tooling around, and flying off, within this reduced wake zone,” Coulianos said.
While the board did not arrive at any concrete solutions on Friday, it is preparing a flyer on Magens Bay rules and regulations for DPNR to include in its permit packets, and it will include a map of the restricted navigation area, said Brumant.
Avery Lewis, the St. Thomas-Water Island administrator and Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s representative on the board, said that while he was not defending DPNR, the department currently has just one enforcement officer for the district, and it has been teaming up with other agencies such as the Coast Guard and FBI to help with enforcement of federal and local laws on weekends.
“Could it be better? Yes. But that’s where they are at at this time,” said Lewis. “We are monitoring it because we do get complaints at Government House about rafting, and the speed and so forth,” he said.
While boaters may be flocking to the territory’s bays, an invasion of sargassum seaweed is causing some beachgoers to flee, said Brumant.
“I haven’t seen that amount at Magens Bay – I’ve been here now for 14 years, and this is the first time I am seeing so much, from end to end,” said Brumant. “That speaks volumes in terms of global warming and also the increase in nutrients to our west and north, and that is coming into our bay. It is predicted that this year it is going to increase in volume,” he said.
Smith Bay has been even worse, said Brumant. “We had a lot. I mean, you just had to be there to see it. I stood in awe when I looked at the bay in Smith Bay,” he said. While he asked DPNR about bringing in heavy equipment to clean the beach, the sand was found to be too soft, he said.
“We decided to go one day at a time, and we are trying our best to see how we could get rid of the seaweed over there. Magens Bay is fine now, my staff has handled it, so we are only concentrating on Smith Bay at this present time. But it is having an economic effect on the receivables at Smith Bay Park,” said Brumant. “I was there several times and most patrons, when they come in and they see the site, they come back and request a refund,” he said.
Coulianos said she will research companies that could collect the seaweed before it hits the shore and report back to the board.
Meanwhile, board Vice Chairman Robert Moron has been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the last year and a half to rebuild Bathhouse No. 1 on the eastern end of the beach after it was destroyed in Hurricane Irma.
It has not been smooth sailing, as FEMA has steadfastly rejected the new design over its proposed enlarged footprint in order to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards and current building codes, said Moron.
FEMA, which would fund 90 percent of the cost, has cited federal shoreline protection provisions in requesting the footprint be reduced by about 800 feet, to fall into line with its original size and existing Bathhouse No. 2, said Moron.
“FEMA is looking at it as 1,800 square foot compared to Bathhouse No. 2,” said Moron. “They are tentatively making an allowance of a 10 percent increase. Ten percent does not really amount to any amount of square footage for a building of this design,” which also must meet height requirements because it is in a flood zone, he said.
“No argument, as it existed it was entirely too small and did not comply with ADA requirements and the architectural building codes of today’s standards,” said Moron. “We have made some compromises in reducing the design, but I feel personally that we can’t reduce it anymore without sacrificing some of the built-in amenities that are necessary for a fully functional facility, including a new solid waste sewage system that is designed to be in there. In short, that’s where we’re at,” he said.
The board will meet on April 28 to further discuss its options, but Moron warned that more challenges remain.
“Even if we get over this hurdle, there is another hurdle that deals with the Endangered Species Act, where a list has been presented of all the reptiles and species at Magens Bay, from turtles down,” that may not be disturbed or disrupted by any construction, Moron said.