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Sea level rise makes Florida ‘beach renourishment’ projects more frequent and expensive

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Sea level rise makes Florida ‘beach renourishment’ projects more frequent and expensive

May 30, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Craig Pittman
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Sea level rise makes Florida ‘beach renourishment’ projects more frequent and expensive
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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander Col. James L. Booth during a brief ceremony marking the start of the Duval County Shore Protection Project, which will cover 10 miles of beach with new sand at a cost to taxpayers of $32 million. (Photo by Mark Rankin, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

When my kids were little, they loved visiting the beach. They’d splash around, build sandcastles, and collect seashells.

But one afternoon, one of my boys let out a scream that brought me on the run. He’d picked up an impressive lightning whelk shell to add to his collection, but that turned out to be a mistake.

“It squirted me!” he hollered in surprise.

I pointed out the “foot” of the living creature that still occupied the shell. That’s what squirted you, I said. Then I suggested we take some pictures of the shell and put it back where he found it so this mollusk could mosey along the way it wanted.

I think of that story every time I hear about some Florida community that’s planning to “renourish” its beach by hauling in sand from somewhere else.

Beaches are more than just a party spot for Frankie and Annette, or a place to build sandcastles and collect shells (squirting or not). They’re part of a system of barrier islands that surround our state’s coastline like a team of bouncers outside a club. They serve as barriers to protect the mainland from crashing storms and their surges.

To do so means they must move around, waxing here, waning there. They’re pushed and pulled as the waves wash their sand this way and that. Scientists call this rope-a-dope routine “littoral drift.” Literally!

Like that whelk my son found, the barrier islands have a natural purpose that doesn’t necessarily match what we humans want.

This wasn’t a problem until we started building stuff on top of them, trying to cash in on the high-priced ocean view. Houses, shops, condos — none of those could move the way the islands did. They have to stay in one spot or they crumble.

Sea level rise makes Florida ‘beach renourishment’ projects more frequent and expensive
North Florida beaches. Credit: Florida State Parks

The barrier islands keep moving, which we foolish humans label “beach erosion.” We keep trying to bend nature to our will by trucking in lots of sand from somewhere else for millions of dollars.

The people who pay for it often don’t live anywhere near the water. Ever wonder where your tax dollars go? Like college kids on spring break, lots of them go to the beach — even if you don’t. “3,600 truckloads of sand: How Hillsboro Beach plans to beef up its eroded beach,” the South Florida Sun Sentinel said recently about one $5 million project.

“In fight against erosion, Pass-a-Grille Beach will get a multimillion-dollar influx of sand,” the Tampa Bay Business Journal announced.

Meanwhile, WJXT-TV reported, “Army Corps of Engineers launches 16-week renourishment project for Duval County beaches.” The cost of that project, which will dump new sand on 10 miles of beaches: $32 million.

The Corps, the government agency in charge of playing in such big sandboxes, always claims they’re “saving” the beach from disappearing. They aren’t, says Orrin Pilkey, a Duke University geology professor who’s an expert on beaches and barrier islands.

“We’re just saving a lot of people’s investments,” he told me.

It’s not cheap, either — especially these days, when our elected leaders keep calling in the Army to recreate a beach that just washed away.

“Treasure Coast governments have spent well over $100 million during the last five years on beach-renourishment work along our shorelines,” TCPalm.com noted in one editorial.

In a news story last month, the same paper laid out the problem in plain language: “Millions spent each year repairing beaches, only to have storms, erosion hit them again.”

I noticed these projects seem to be happening a lot more often than they used to, so I asked several experts about it. They said my observation was correct.

Sea level rise makes Florida ‘beach renourishment’ projects more frequent and expensive
Wayne Daltry, via subject

Once you could re-sand a Florida beach and you wouldn’t need to do it again for a decade or so, said Wayne Daltry, formerly the “smart growth” coordinator for Lee County. Not anymore. He summed up the reason in just three words.

“Nothing has changed from the futile and expensive sand rearrangement as the public agencies try to replace the littoral drift,” he told me, “except that it has gotten more expensive with sea level rise.”

With the hurricane season that starts Saturday predicted to be “extraordinary,” get ready to see lots more new sand washed away this summer.

A sandy Band-Aid

“I don’t like sand,” whines Anakin Skywalker in his pre-Vader form in Attack of the Clones. “It’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere.” (If only the Rebels had attacked him with a sand bomb, they would have beaten the Empire much more quickly.)

Unlike Darth, we Floridians loooooooove our sand. Twenty years ago, a state legislator told me, “Sand is to Florida what snow is to Colorado.”

Engineers have been using new sand to boost the size of beaches nationwide since 1922. That’s when Coney Island needed some “enhancement,” the way some fading Hollywood stars turn to plastic surgery to roll back their odometers.

Since then, from 1922 through May 2018, “more than 818 miles of beaches were restored using in excess of 1.5 billion cubic yards of material,” says the American Sand and Beach Preservation Association (more on them in a bit). “The total cost of these projects is estimated at $6.1 billion.”

Six years later, you can bet those numbers are considerably higher, especially since some places have had to be redone repeatedly.

“It was not a good idea a century ago [and] it is even more baffling today,” historian Gary Mormino, author of “Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida,” which includes an extensive history of how Florida regards its beaches, told me in an email this week. He compared these projects to “giving billionaire sports moguls new sport palaces.”

Take a wild guess which state has called on the federal taxpayers to fix its dwindling beaches the most in the past decade. If you said that it was the one whose name starts with F, give yourself an A+.

Sea level rise makes Florida ‘beach renourishment’ projects more frequent and expensive
Nicole Elko via Corps of Engineers

California is No. 1 for the century, said Nicole Elko, executive director of the sand and beach association, mostly for work it did in the 1960s and 1970s. Florida runs a very close second, she said.

You’d be amazed at how many Florida politicians who call themselves fiscal conservatives suddenly turn into fans of free-spending, big-government programs when the subject is beach renourishment. Back up that star-spangled dump truck, Uncle Sam!

More than half of Florida’s 825 miles of beaches are now classified as “critically eroded,” thus making them eligible for renourishment, said Emma Haydocy of the environmental group Surfrider Foundation.

She calls beach renourishment “a sandy Band-Aid.”

Sea level rise makes Florida ‘beach renourishment’ projects more frequent and expensive
Emma Haydocy via Linkedin

As climate change makes the sea level creep higher, applying that Band-Aid “happens more frequently and is more expensive,” Haydocy told me. Higher seas make even smaller storms more destructive than they used to be, she pointed out.

For instance, when Hurricane Nicole (no relation to Elko) made landfall on Florida’s East Coast in 2022, it was rated a mere Category 1. I have known longtime Floridians who regarded a Cat 1 as barely sufficient justification for throwing a hurricane party.

But this one hit at high tide, and as a result “caused devastating storm surge and coastal flooding along the east central Florida coast,” says the National Weather Service.

“Projects where sand had previously been placed were completely undone in just a couple of hours,” Haydocy said.

Butts on the beach

If you’re writing about beach renourishment, you have to call the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association.

The association, founded in 1926, represents the 470 communities nationwide that depend on these renourishment projects for the continued existence of their beaches. No beach means no tourists.

“These communities need butts on the beaches to sustain themselves,” said Elko, who earned her Ph.D. in geology from the University of South Florida while serving as the coastal coordinator for Pinellas County.

One thing she said that surprised me is that Florida used to obtain all its sand for rebuilding beaches from offshore dredging — but not anymore.

Now, she said, most Florida beaches are being rebuilt using sand from the ancient dunes that form the Lake Wales Ridge, which runs down the spine of the state.

The state’s own website on the ridge says it’s “home to one of the highest number of rare plants and animals in the United States” and that “85% of the original, dry uplands habitat on the Lake Wales Ridge has been lost to agriculture and development.” But I’m sure mining what’s left just to build up our beaches isn’t causing a single problem, or the Florida Department of Environmental Who Cares wouldn’t allow it.

Elko told me that climate change and sea level rise are indeed tearing apart lots of rebuilt beaches before the sand can invade too many swimsuits.

She also agreed with Haydocy that a major problem is with some of the buildings on the beaches. Some have been built in places that make them extremely vulnerable to rising seas. They need saving more often than Mary Jane Watson in a Spider-Man movie.

Yet she didn’t foresee any changes to our policy of doing whatever is necessary to save those places, no matter how foolish it may seem.

“In the next decade, I think we’ll keep doing what we’re doing,” she said

But what would happen if we let some of those places fall into the ocean?

Dollars down the drain

This is known as “managed retreat,” through which we as a society back away from some of our worst building decisions and save our millions in tax dollars for more worthy projects.

Pilkey, the Duke scientist, is one of the first people I ever heard — more than 20 years ago — talking about the concept of managed retreat. He even wrote a recent book on the subject: “Retreat from a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change.”

Sea level rise makes Florida ‘beach renourishment’ projects more frequent and expensive
Orrin Pilkey, via Duke University

The concept sounded crazy in the ’90s, this idea of letting some buildings fall into the sea. When Pilkey and other geologists first brought it up “we really got kicked around,” he told me. “I got some real hate mail.”

Now it’s become an accepted practice in some parts of the world. When a storm called Xynthia hit the French Atlantic coast in 2010 and 47 people died in the flooding, France bought what was left of the houses at pre-flood prices and destroyed them.

“We will not let people move back into homes situated in areas where there is a life-threatening risk,” then-President Nicolas Sarkozy said.

Our approach in Florida has been somewhat … oh, let’s just say “different.”

The governor and Legislature have not only deleted the words “climate change” from most of the places they appeared in state law. They’ve also blocked local governments from trying to keep people from rebuilding in the exact same spot as the homes and stores that were washed away in prior storms.

The only managed retreat in Florida is the retreat from common sense.

Instead, our “fiscal conservatives”  will continue to spend our tax money on rebuilding beaches sure to be washed away in the next storm, which is one step removed from just pouring dollars down the drain.

We don’t have an official sport in Florida, but if we did, I think it would be pounding sand.