There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Miami Beach tourists could almost roll out of their hotel beds and fall into the sea. In the early Seventies beach erosion was so severe that there wasn't much beach to speak of. In some places that famous band of sand narrowed to nothing; the water washed up against the foundations of the hotels along the east side of Collins Avenue, flowed through parking garages, and flooded pool decks.
The beach hadn't always been this pathetic. The problems, of course, began with the first opportunistic land speculators who ventured across the bay from Miami at the beginning of the century with visions of gold filling their brainpans. What they found was a barrier island nearly a mile wide and a dozen miles long. Essentially a giant, stable sandbar, the island was crowned by a thriving hammock of palm trees and seagrapes. A mangrove swamp ran along the bay side and a slender beach graced the ocean side.
Miami Beach's sand originally came from the disintegration of mountains. The sediment washed into streams and rivers and then out to the Atlantic Ocean. Under natural conditions, the resulting sand, pushed by tides and currents, migrated south along the Florida coast in a cycle of accretion and erosion. In this way, the beaches maintained themselves. "They shifted 50 feet one way or the other, and moved and relocated," explains Miami Beach environmental specialist Bruce Henderson. "It was a fluid system."
But shoreline development interfered with this natural flux. Jetties, like the one at South Pointe, arrested the normal march of sand. In addition, manmade inlets like Baker's Haulover Cut and Government Cut disrupted the sand migration by sucking it into the channel or blowing it out to sea. Finally, the construction of buildings along the beachfront interfered with the natural give-and-take of the shoreline. Says Henderson: "You build a hotel near the coast and you expect the coast to still be out there, not underneath your building."
Throughout the century, as human tinkering with the environment increased, Miami Beach's sand disappeared. The condition became so grave, and the outcries from tourism officials and business owners so vociferous, that in 1975 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began an ambitious beach renourishment effort that beefed up not only Miami Beach's shoreline but also those of Sunny Isles, Bal Harbour, Surfside, and Key Biscayne. During the thirteen-year project, the Corps dredged sand from near-shore sandbars and dumped about 30 million cubic yards of the granular stuff up and down the length of the Dade coast, creating a 300-foot-wide beach (110 feet wide on Key Biscayne.) Miami Beach was the prime beneficiary, receiving about fourteen million cubic yards along its six-mile shoreline. The project cost $80 million.
Since then, the Corps has returned several times to do supplementary renourishments. And as long as there's public support to prevent the Fontainebleau from toppling into the ocean, there will continue to be a need for much more sand. "There's a perception you have to fight that beach renourishment is a waste of money," says Brian Flynn, chief of the restoration and enhancement section of the Metro-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM). He points out that Miami Beach's sand-retention record has been superb, and the city has required renourishment of only five percent of the total amount plunked down fifteen years ago. "You have to treat the beach as a piece of infrastructure that needs maintenance every once in awhile."