The Search for Sand Is No Day at the Beach
IT is arguably America’s best-known stretch of beaches, a playground populated by tightly toned models and sunburned tourists alike. But South Florida’s shoreline is becoming known for something far more ominous: the sand shortage that is threatening to reshape all of the nation’s coasts.
Blame it on global warming or just the vagaries of nature. Whatever the cause, the reality is forcing coastal communities to re-evaluate how they’re going to keep their beaches wide and welcoming. In the process, they’re looking at a combination of creative and practical solutions, from recycling glass bottles into sand to buying their beaches (or, at least, their sand) from the Bahamas or other sources.
What’s at stake? Nothing less than the economic survival of the shores, say tourism and government officials.
“When people are expecting to have a beach experience and our beaches are eroded, it’s unsettling to them and it’s bad business for us,” said Nikki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
South Florida is at the center of this sandstorm since it’s faced with the ultimate dilemma: not only is it one of the country’s most popular beach areas — Ms. Grossman notes that more than 10 million visitors make their way annually to her locale — it’s also one of the most imperiled. There is, to put it simply, no longer a decent supply of offshore sand for the beach renourishment programs that have become as much a fact of life in this sun-worshiper’s paradise as highway maintenance.
“We’re basically out of sand at this point,” said Brian Flynn, a special projects administrator at the Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management. He was referring to the close-to-the-coastline areas that have been dredged in years past and that represent the simplest, most affordable option when it comes to sand replacement. Much of what’s left at this point is in protected areas with reefs.
But if South Florida is an extreme example, it’s not an isolated one. There’s barely a beach community in the United States that hasn’t grappled with erosion at some point. This past summer alone has seen the issue arise everywhere from Galveston, Tex. (a proposed resort is prompting concerns about the effect it will have on beaches), to Long Island (among the most recent causes of beach erosion was an April northeaster). And even communities that have replenished their beaches have learned a lesson or two: at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, a renourishment program had beachgoers complaining that there was too much gravel mixed with the sand. As a local newspaper summed up the situation in a headline: “Sand Turns Rocky Horror.”
Erosion is, of course, nothing new. By their very nature, beaches are temporal things, coastal experts explain. Sand will shift in different directions — along the East Coast, it typically moves southward — building up beaches in one spot, shrinking them in another. Storms can accelerate the process. As one prominent Florida newspaper columnist, Mike Thomas of The Orlando Sentinel, said: “The state is a submarine that submerges and surfaces with sea-level changes.”
But in Florida and elsewhere, the real problem comes with development. When coastal communities emerge and expand, residents and visitors expect the beaches to remain intact. “Then you’re forced to defend them,” said Stephen Higgins, the beach erosion administrator for Broward County, which encompasses Fort Lauderdale and beach towns to the north and south of it.
It’s not just development on the shore. Boating plays a role as well, since it requires the dredging of channels, which interrupt the flow of sand. That’s why South Florida’s most critical areas of erosion are south of Port Everglades, one of the country’s busiest cruise terminals: the sand shifting from the north can’t make it past the deeply cut waterway.
Global warming also rears its ugly head. As environmentalists often note, a hotter planet means rising sea levels. And rising sea levels mean less sand.
Put it all together and experts say coastal communities can no longer afford to take their beaches for granted. “We now have to manage our beaches like we manage our cities,” said Kate Gooderham, executive director of the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association, based in Fort Myers, Fla.
For communities, that means making beach renourishment a scheduled maintenance item in cycles of every few years. But in South Florida, regular replenishment can’t happen without available sand. That’s where those creative solutions come into play. One is to engineer ways to recapture sand that gets lost in those deep inlets. Another is to find sand from sources even farther offshore — namely, elsewhere in Florida or the Bahamas, though federal law currently prohibits importing foreign sand. (To go any greater distance, or to purchase sand from inland sources such as quarries, makes less sense since the cost of shipping and getting the sand on the beach becomes prohibitive.)
Some solutions involve controversy. Something like class warfare ensued when the Army Corps of Engineers, which handles most beach renourishment projects throughout the country, looked at the possibility of taking offshore sand from St. Lucie County, a mainly middle-class area about 100 miles south of the Kennedy Space Center, and bringing it to Miami Beach. The president of the Florida Senate, Ken Pruitt, a Republican from Port St. Lucie, labeled it “almost a criminal act.” The Army plan was eventually dropped.
Finally, there’s an even more bizarre option, at least to those who think of sand as something natural. That is, make it from scratch.
Broward County, which completed a $44.5 million renourishment project in 2006, is considering using recycled glass bottles (since, after all, glass is made from sand). More than $500,000 is being committed to testing the idea, exploring everything from the response of beachgoers to the ability of sea turtles to nest in it. But even if the glass idea works, the issue comes down to a matter of money, according to Mr. Higgins, the erosion administrator. Turning glass back into sand requires millions of dollars in equipment and processing. If the cost proves too “outrageous,” Mr. Higgins said, then “we will have to import our sand.”
But Broward is unusual in that its local government is often willing to front those millions, then hope for some reimbursement from the federal government. (Typically, Washington picks up 65 percent of the cost of beach projects.) With other coastal communities, it’s a matter of securing the federal funds first, a process that can drag out for years.
And those funds are becoming harder to get, say government officials and beach advocates. Washington currently commits about $120 million to beach renourishment, according to the shore and beach association, which argues that the number should be as much as twice that. The shortfall can be attributed in part to the fact that beaches are often seen as state and local resources. What federal money is committed to beach restoration is done so with an eye more on storm-damage mitigation — the larger the beach, the more of a buffer it provides — than on the economic engine of tourism.
It’s a philosophy that has cut across party lines, going back to the Clinton administration and continuing through the current Bush one, said Representative Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat. He is a member of the Congressional Coastal Caucus, and his district includes those Asbury Park beaches made famous by Bruce Springsteen. “In the same way we look at our national parks as a national treasure,” he said, “we should look at our beaches as a national treasure.”
It’s an argument that Ms. Grossman, the South Florida tourism booster, will certainly buy. “We say you have to think outside the sandbox,” she said.