Where's the Beach?

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

Veteran observers present at the December 21, 1994, Miami Beach City Commission meeting may have known the mayor was about to erupt. His characteristic tics -- the unconscious shoulder shrugs, the merry gaze triangulating from the audience in the commission chamber to the speaker to the documents in front of him -- had ceased. Mayor Seymour Gelber gathered up his gangly limbs from his customarily slumped posture and bent toward a microphone.

Maybe Commissioner David Pearlson noticed. Probably not, for he had launched into an explanation of why the commission should pass a resolution calling on Gov. Lawton Chiles to declare a state of emergency concerning beach erosion. That the beaches were in bad shape was not in question: The perpetual blender of wind and waves had chopped away long swaths of sand; in some spots where the beach was once hundreds of feet wide, the surf now licked close to the dunes and wooden boardwalk. At certain locations high tide blocked the path of emergency vehicles along the beach, and the city had been forced to dismantle a handicapped access ramp to the sand because it now deposited people in the water.

Everyone worried about the loss of the dunes, constructed during an extensive beach renourishment project in the mid Seventies and early Eighties to protect oceanfront property from storm-surge flooding (see sidebar). And the economic ramifications of a de-beached Miami were unthinkable. Tourism officials say the beach is the number-one attraction for Dade's multibillion-dollar vacation industry. Miami Beach has more than twice the number of tourist visits than Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite national parks combined. As the beach goes, so go the visitors.

To make the situation even more critical, a federally sponsored beach renourishment project to provide some temporary relief to the worst sections of Miami Beach had been brought to a halt by a federal court injunction. The tiny yet wealthy town of Golden Beach had sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees beach renourishment for the federal government. Town officials feared that sand dredging for the project about two miles off their shoreline would cause environmental damage and exacerbate erosion of the town's beachfront. The dredging site -- a submerged sandbar-- was one of the two last known sources of obtainable and federally approved sand in South Florida. The other site had been reserved for other projects. Without the Golden Beach site, there was nowhere for Miami Beach to go.

So the question was, What action should the City of Miami Beach take to save its greatest natural resource? Pearlson, with the backing of the city's administration, thought a declaration of emergency was the answer. In conjunction with similar resolutions from other municipalities, it would encourage the governor to help the city navigate the "bureaucratic morass," Pearlson explained.

Gelber's squeaky voice, edgy with irritation, pierced the stale bureaucratic air. "Well, has your group contacted the governor or members of his staff and asked him to do A, B, C, and D, which will take you through the morass?" he inquired.

Pearlson went silent for a moment, then ventured on another explanatory path. "We believe the process for contacting him is first to declare an emergency for the cities, then contact him," the commissioner began. He explained that the governor might be able to help expedite the federal approval process for an alternative source of sand in the Bahamas, thereby relieving the burden of the Golden Beach lawsuit, and -- "I don't have a problem with this at all," Gelber interrupted, "but has anyone contacted [Lt.Gov.] Buddy McKay and said, 'Look, we need your help and do this: A, B, C, and D'? Passing resolutions is fine, but all we do is sign this, send it up, and that gets lost in the morass rather than directly asking for whatever help is necessary."

Then-city manager Roger Carlton, another proponent of the resolution, took over for Pearlson. "Mayor, let me explain if I might," he said, launching into a windy and vaguely condescending discourse about the problems of sand dredging, governmental process, the pending litigation.

"I know all about those things!" the mayor screeched, fixing his glare on Carlton seated halfway around the semicircular dais. "All we're talking about is how to get some help outta Tallahassee! And I'm tellin' you, if you pick up the phone and get someone that can do something, isn't it a lot more [effective] than passing these wonderful resolutions to just get your story in the newspaper?"

Carlton: "We think the resolutions will help us --"
"Then why didn't you call someone in Tallahassee to do something?" Gelber was aflame. "You want something to happen in Tallahassee that involves the federal government, you call someone like Buddy McKay who does that all the time! You pass this resolution and it will go up there in somebody's files and it'll be filed in that big cabinet that says 'Emergency Resolutions' and that'll be the end of it!"

The resolution eventually passed, as did similar ones that came before the commissions of Bal Harbour and Dade County. Still, Gelber's critique was fitting then, and it is today. While local officials have made a lot of noise about Dade's ever-diminishing beaches, it hasn't done a whole lot of good. Efforts over the past two years to solve the problem have been hampered by profound government inertia. Yes, Chiles got around to declaring an emergency, and in recent months frustration and desperation have finally driven local authorities to decisive action. But a single cupful of new sand has yet to be deposited on Dade's beaches.

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.

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."

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."

Muss's suggestion was this: Haul sand from the well-nourished stretch of beach between 1st and 30th streets to the heavily eroded sections between 30th and 50th streets. Along the worst stretches of shoreline, the water was touching the boardwalk pilings and threatening to undermine the wooden structure. Access ramps that once descended smoothly from the boardwalk, across the dunes, and to the beach now were suspended four and five feet above the eroding sand.

In June the City of Miami Beach took up Muss's suggestion. Construction workers rolled out some bulldozers and began moving 7500 tons of sand from South Beach to the most heavily eroded sections of Miami Beach between 30th and 46th streets. The project was completed earlier this month, permitting the access ramps to be reopened and emergency vehicles to scoot along the beach at high tide. The stopgap measure has bought the administration some time and temporarily placated sand-starved business owners.

But while the bureaucrats continue to bumble, the steady, inexorable forces of nature grind on and the beach disappears.

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