Where's the Beach?

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

As of the beginning of this week, Golden Beach and the Army Corps of Engineers appeared within a sand grain's width of resolving their differences and settling the lawsuit. According to correspondence between the two sides, a likely settlement would allow the Corps to restart the dredging project off Golden Beach but would limit the amount to about 430,000 cubic yards rather than the original 550,000.

Such a settlement would come none too soon. The need for fresh sand is now greater than ever. Supplies do exist: In addition to the Golden Beach site, there are 1.1 million cubic yards available at the Government Cut site (the Corps plans to begin dredging there next spring). DERM researchers are also doing preliminary research on two sandbanks that have formed both inside and outside Baker's Haulover Cut and that total about 100,000 cubic yards. But Dade's going to need a lot more than that in coming years. Bal Harbour, for one, needs about 600,000 cubic yards. And Pinon says the northern section of Miami Beach is approaching "emergency" status and needs about a million cubic yards.

Metro-Dade and the City of Miami Beach want to speed up the testing and approval process for new sand sources and are seeking to assume some of the responsibilities traditionally assigned to the Corps. The city has hired a coastal engineering consultant to act as a liaison with the Corps, which has agreed to a conference with Dade officials in October to discuss ways of expediting the search for sand. Miami Beach environmental specialist Bruce Henderson says if the local governments get authority to conduct all the necessary scientific and engineering tests on the sand samples, they could complete the analysis in six months, versus an eighteen- to twenty-four-month turnaround time for the Corps.

The Corps' Richard Bonner says limited, short-term delegation is possible and has been arranged with several other coastal communities in the state. Permanent delegation, though, can be accomplished only by congressional approval and could take as long as five years to effect. Broward and Palm Beach counties are the only local governments in the U.S. to have received the permanent authorization, Bonner says.

Bonner admits that until the past few weeks the Corps hadn't really considered upland sand sources. They are too expensive and logistically complicated, he explains. "When you want to renourish a million cubic yards and a truck holds twenty cubic yards, that's a lot of trucks," he notes, adding that heavy-duty vehicle traffic can damage roads and cause congestion. That method, however, has been regularly employed by the City of Virginia Beach, Virginia, during the past 45 years, says Golden Beach consultant Donald Wisdom (although, he adds, the trucking distances the Virginia Beach haulers cover are considerably shorter). As for the possibility of trucking from a quarry to a port, then loading onto barges for the trip south to Dade, Bonner says: "That's probably the way it will be done. We're just now looking at it."

The current search isn't limited to foreign and upland domestic sites. Using new technology, federal engineers are beginning to explore deep-water sources that have traditionally been unreachable from old dredging machines. Searches have, until now, been limited to water no deeper than 90 feet, says Flynn.

As engineers pursue these various sources of new sand, others are trying to develop ways to fiddle with Mother Nature and cut down on the ocean's erosive tendencies. Scientists have been experimenting with different manmade reefs that they hope may absorb some of the force of the waves. The Army Corps of Engineers is planning to deploy giant sandbags off Sunny Isles, and Miami Beach is planning to build artificial-reef shelves using four-foot-high concrete pyramids in at least two locations off the city's shore.

Time is of the essence, because the Clinton Administration wants to significantly reduce federal support and involvement in beach renourishment. The federal government pays for half the cost of beach-reclamation projects and has subsidized the rebuilding of about 20 million cubic yards of coastline in Dade over the past two decades. (The state and county split the other half of the costs.) The proposed federal cuts could mean a loss of $10 to $20 million per year for the state.

Oddly, one of the best ideas that has emerged from these endless months of talking, meeting, memo writing, hand wringing, and posturing came not from an engineer or an environmentalist but from a hotelier. Granted, Stephen Muss isn't a garden-variety hotelier: He owns the Fontainebleau Hilton Resort and Tower. For years he has monitored the beach-renourishment debate and badgered public officials. But the Atlantic waves now crash within yards of his investment and he's seen enough.

So this past March, after receiving a progress report from Miami Beach Commissioner Susan Gottlieb, Muss sat down and, in a tone of controlled rage, wrote her a response: "Although I found it interesting to read about the creation of artificial reefs, as the months have turned into years it seems to me that we are still in Never Never Land as to whether the beach will be pumped before the properties become flooded at high tide," he began. "The aragonite situation which surfaced some years ago is an impossible dream. The Bahamas will never let it happen. As you very well know, this is a complicated world that we live in and, because of this, the suggestion which I very seriously am going to make to you to solve the pumping situation is so simple, so relatively inexpensive to do, that it will not be accepted by the bureaucrats, the technocrats, the politicians, or the environmentalists."

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