Where's the Beach?

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

Hope for the aragonite, though, evaporated this past September when the Bahamian government rejected a federal request to collect and test samples of it from a vast sandbank. (Bahamas government officials refused to comment to New Times on the reasons for their decision; Dade officials speculate that the Bahamas didn't want to indirectly assist Florida tourism.)

The denial came as a complete surprise to Dade officials, recalls Brian Flynn, chief of the restoration and enhancement section of the Metro-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), which coordinates local renourishment projects with the federal government. "Everybody went, like, 'Wow!'" he exclaims. "At that point we were kind of dead in the water. We were going along on our merry way and nobody ever really perceived that we wouldn't be able to purchase the [Bahamian] sand. We'd always banked on using the Bahamas."

So what did local, state, and federal officials do now that the only known usable sand source was tied up in litigation and the most likely alternative was null and void?

Not a lot.
Flynn says that Metro-Dade then began to discuss the potential of Central Florida upland sand sources they'd heard about. "We started to shift our efforts to that avenue, but not very aggressively," he confesses. Dade officials didn't pursue upland sources with any gusto because, for one, upland sand has traditionally been far more expensive and complicated to transport than offshore sources since it has to be carted in truck by truck, he notes. Second, the officials were crossing their fingers that they would prevail in the lawsuit. "That was our assumption," Flynn says.

"We kept on being promised that [the Golden Beach lawsuit] was going to be resolved soon," adds Rep. Bloom, attributing some of the delays to a lack of attention and bungling on the part of the U.S. Department of Justice attorneys handling the Corp of Engineers defense.

For his part, Assistant City Manager Joseph Pinon, who oversees beach renourishment efforts for Miami Beach, says it has never been the municipalities' responsibility to investigate alternative sand sources. "Our role was to say, 'Come on, guys, we need sand.' That was it. That has always been our part."

In late spring, Flynn says, Dade County heard about a sand source in the Turks and Caicos Islands and tipped off Miami Beach. Their environmental specialist, Bruce Henderson, and Pinon made some initial inquiries and even made a reconnaissance foray to the islands to investigate potential sources -- "Brian [Flynn] suggested we might be able to move things along faster," Pinon recalls. At about that same time, several regional and national newspapers published articles about the sand erosion problem on Miami Beach, including the St. Petersburg Times and the Wall Street Journal, and mentioned the Turks and Caicos connection.

Then a surprising thing happened: Pinon's office was flooded with calls from private firms offering sand. By the stadium-ful. He heard from Haiti, Mexico, Panama, as well as from numerous coastal and upland Florida sites, a deluge he attributes to the news coverage. Suddenly, Pinon says, he had on his desk "eight to ten" different samples of sand and offers from individual contractors to supply as much as ten million tons of the stuff at costs of between $11 and $16.50 per ton, compared to about $7.40 to $9.50 per ton for near-shore sources. The response astounded public officials. Of course, whether these sand sources were suitable for Dade was yet to be determined. Each would have to undergo thorough analysis for its chemical components, grain size, color, and durability. But it was a start.

Invigorated by the windfall and frustrated by the Corps' sluggishness, local governments became proactive. On July 12, a delegation of Beach and Metro-Dade officials flew to Jacksonville to meet with Corps officials. They toted along numerous samples of the newfound sand and presented them to Richard Bonner, an engineer who oversees renourishment projects for the Corps. "I was a little surprised to see as many sources with that quantity of material," admits Bonner, deputy district engineer for the Corps' Jacksonville District. "We didn't pursue upland sources because we didn't think there was that much in them." (When discussion got around to the Turks and Caicos lead, Bonner, according to several participants in the meeting, apologized and said he hadn't followed up that particular possibility because he thought the Turks and Caicos was part of the Bahamas and, therefore, a dead end.)

The rash of unsolicited contractors didn't surprise some people in Golden Beach all that much. This past spring, a town resident volunteered to do a little research into alternative sand sources and discovered a sand mine just southwest of Lake Okeechobee that had two types of sand, both of which looked like good candidates for beach renourishment. The resident forwarded his findings to a consulting engineer hired by the town, Donald Wisdom of Stuart, Florida, who negotiated very competitive purchase and transport prices. His information became part of a settlement proposal to the Corps this past month.

In reflecting on the two previous years of tail chasing, Dade's local officials are quick to condemn the federal government for the lack of progress, accepting none of the blame themselves. But in a burst of candor uncommon for a governmental bureaucrat, Bruce Henderson admits, "We have been complacent in letting the projects work themselves out."

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