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Fixing Florida's Beach Erosion Is Expensive

Vilano Beach Storm Erosion
Beach erosion — during Tropical Storm Fay — threatens homes in Vilano Beach. [Photo: Christina Abel/Florida Times-Union]

As Tropical Storm Fay danced around the coast this summer, making a record number of landfalls, it also did a number on Florida’s beaches. The storm eroded sand from south Palm Beach and Lantana in Palm Beach County, as well as from south Ponte Vedra and Vilano beaches in St. Johns County. In the latter case, five homes are threatened by erosion.

Officials say they’ll spend about $154 million this year on beach restoration, renourishment, sand-transfer and monitoring projects:

Source Amount
Local governments $81 million
State government $44 million
Federal government $29 million

Source: Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Just a week later, Hurricane Gustav ate into vulnerable beaches on Florida’s Gulf shoreline: Alligator Point in Franklin County and St. Joseph’s Peninsula.

All those areas are chronic hot spots for beach erosion, says Mike Barnett, chief of the Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Beaches and Coastal Systems, and all are candidates for beach-restoration projects. Statewide, about a dozen projects are scheduled for 2009, many involving maintenance of previously restored shorelines, also known as nourishment.

Renourishment sites are supposed to receive new sand every six to 10 years but may need it more frequently after heavy storm periods such as the current one. Much of the sand brought to Honeymoon Island in a $2-million project less than a year ago had washed away by the time Gustav finished its tour, for example.

The projects remain controversial, despite Florida’s 50-year tradition of restoring eroded beaches. Some environmentalists and sportsmen oppose the renourishment efforts because they can harm — or even bury — reefs and sea life. Some see the expensive projects as unwise public subsidies for wealthy beachfront dwellers. “Many millions of dollars flow faster than sand through your toes,” complains Karl Wickstrom, editor-in-chief at Florida Sportsman magazine and a critic of the projects.

In between hurricanes this September, the Palm Beach County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation went to court in an effort to stop the DEP’s and Palm Beach’s $15-million renourishment project near Lake Worth Pier. DEP and the town say the project is necessary to fix severe erosion from the 2004-05 hurricanes. Critics say the project will bury a near-shore reef.

Whatever the outcome, the state will look closer at restoration projects this year and next. The state’s share of renourishment project costs is paid using documentary stamp tax collections, which have plummeted. The Legislature authorized $22 million for DEP to keep rebuilding beaches this year — down from $47 million last fiscal year — but added language calling for a review of the effectiveness of Florida’s beach-management program, with a report due back to the Legislature next spring.

No one argues against the enormous importance of beach sand to protect Florida’s coastal properties and its top economic driver — tourism. Disagreement comes, however, about the best way to keep sand on Florida’s beaches. New technologies are being tried all over the state. Officials in Hillsboro Beach in Broward County have installed a series of PVC drainage pipes called PEMs — pressure equalizing modules — that are supposed to reduce water pressure and prevent waves from taking as much sand out to sea.

Perhaps most interesting, Broward County is experimenting with the idea of turning glass — which begins life as sand — back into sand and spreading it on eroded beaches. The idea would solve two problems — paying to dispose of recycled glass and coming up with new beach sand. Preliminary studies have shown the smooth-processed glass “is basically sand,” says Steve Higgins, the county’s beach erosion administrator.

Everything we’ve done so far has demonstrated that it walks like sand and talks like sand,” says Higgins. County officials are proposing to spread 3,000 tons of it on a 300-foot stretch of Hollywood Beach to see if it also behaves like sand.

Go to Links Links: Update on the Surfrider Foundation’s beach-dredging lawsuit against DEP and Palm Beach
For more articles this month with extra links, go to the Links page.