Where's the Beach?

The true story behind the beach erosion explosion is politics as usual

To assert, as is occasionally done, that Golden Beach's lawsuit against the U.S. government is a David and Goliath story is not quite accurate. Unlike the wealthy burg, David had neither a bulging purse of shekels with which to litigate nor full recourse in a court of law. But the analogy is otherwise quite fitting.

The legal battle began in the summer of 1994 when the town's administration learned that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was about to begin a dredging project off its coast. A Golden Beach resident had received a letter from the Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. -- fifteen days before the project was to begin -- warning that heavy machinery would be used in "close proximity" to her home. It was the first direct notice any residents or town officials had received.

The Corps intended to suck up about 550,000 cubic yards of sand from a so-called borrow site about two miles out to sea, deposit it on a barge, haul it near shore, and then pump it directly onto the beach. The sand was earmarked for badly eroded sections of shorefront: One-fourth of the sand was intended for Sunny Isles, just to the south of Golden Beach, while the rest was to be dumped on a stretch of Miami Beach between 34th and 47th streets.

The sand source is valuable because it is one of the last two in nearby waters; the only other remaining offshore Dade site is about three miles east of Government Cut. Its sands have been promised to Surfside and South Beach. Of course, there's plenty of sand in the ocean's shallow waters, but much of it is either untouchable because it's too close to protected reefs or too silty. And not just any sand can be dumped on Dade's beaches: It must satisfy rigid state and federal criteria of color, grain size, and chemical composition, among other considerations, to ensure that it matches existing sand and is environmentally suitable.

Golden Beach, though, had concerns more immediate than the long-term future of Dade's beaches. Residents worried that the dredges would soon damage nearby reefs and that the dredging process would disturb the habitat of endangered sea turtles that used Golden Beach for nesting. The townfolk also complained that they weren't given an adequate chance to protest.

The city immediately sued the Corps, charging it with violating federal regulations that mandate public notice and input before a dredging project is undertaken. The town also alleged that the federal government had failed to consider alternative sources and to complete a thorough analysis of environmental impacts of the project. U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages granted an injunction on September 22, 1994, bringing the dredges to a standstill with only one-fourth of the project completed.

The ruling was a bombshell, particularly coming on the eve of the busy winter tourist season. Furthermore, a prolonged delay would mean the project could not be completed in time for the next hurricane season, when the beach's function as a flood buffer is most valued. Lastly, there was a lot of money hanging in the balance: In excess of three million dollars in federal funds for the project, plus more than one million dollars in Hurricane Andrew rebuilding funds, could be lost if the project did not proceed according to schedule. Hoteliers and officials from the aggrieved seaside communities talked about responding with a lawsuit against Golden Beach.

During that autumn, State Rep. Elaine Bloom (D-Miami Beach) and Pearlson took the lead in trying to unify the local interests. They organized several meetings involving representatives from the sand-needy coastal communities of Sunny Isles, Surfside, Bal Harbour, and Miami Beach, as well as from Metro-Dade, state and federal governments, and local businesses. Bloom also volunteered to take the lead in coordinating a lobbying campaign designed to pressure federal officials into accelerating both the Golden Beach lawsuit and the study of the potential sand source in the Bahamas, which had been identified years before. The requests for a gubernatorial declaration of emergency were mailed to Tallahassee, and Miami Beach even passed a separate resolution appealing to Golden Beach to drop its lawsuit. In January an aide to Governor Chiles paid a visit to Miami Beach to see what the fuss was all about. And during a trip to South Florida three months later, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt took a helicopter tour of the Dade coastline to inspect the beach erosion, vowed to push ahead with the implementation of a demonstration project using Bahamian sand, then left.

In short, a lot of jaw flapping.
Amidst all this nattering, no one bothered to get out and look for more sand. With all other known and approved offshore sources depleted, no agency -- local, state, or federal -- launched an intensive, comprehensive search for new and viable alternative sand sources, either abroad or upland.

For years, federal and local officials had discussed the possibility of importing sand from the Bahamas. But in early 1995, that idea was highly wishful: The Bahamas' famously white sand -- called aragonite -- had been transplanted only to the manmade beach on Fisher Island and was still being studied for its effects on turtle hatching. Biologists say temperature determines the gender of sea turtle hatchlings, and since heat tends to produce more females, the cooler aragonite sand would skew the ratio in favor of males, thereby threatening the future of the population. Moreover, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, one of the agencies that signs off on renourishment sand, had been lukewarm at best to the idea of aragonite and demanded more testing to determine its suitability for use in South Florida.

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