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South Florida running out of sand

Miami Herald - 3/21/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Curtis Morgan

For decades, South Florida's beaches have received periodic infusions of fresh sand pumped from offshore to maintain their bountiful curves.

Now, the supply of sunken sand off Miami-Dade and Broward is tapped out.

''For practical purposes,'' said Miami-Dade environmental director Carlos Espinosa, ``we are out of sand.''

The shortage has federal, state and local agencies and consultants searching for stuff alluring enough to spread on such fabled bikini strips as Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. The hunt ranges from ancient beaches now buried inland to unexplored depths to islands of the Bahamas and Caribbean.

It also has major implications for Florida's beach program, which regularly ''renourishes'' a constantly eroding coast with dredge pumps and pipelines.

Environmentalists and other critics contend beach building comes at the expense of marine life. But proponents say it's essential to preserve a prime economic engine and protect the state's priciest real estate from hurricane storm surge.

''When we run out of sand for our beaches, the beaches are going to go bye-bye and that's a serious thing,'' said Steve Higgins, beach erosion administrator for Broward.

Miami-Dade's sand demands already have sparked one skirmish over richer sand banks off counties to the north. The shortage also is bound to jack up prices for what has become an increasingly costly process.

Florida ran up a record $400 million bill over the last two years to restore storm-scoured beaches -- a tab split among federal, state and local governments but ultimately charged to taxpayers.

It cost $45 million to rebuild 6.8 miles of South Broward beaches last year with sand dredged from offshore. By the latest estimates, trucking it from inland mines or barging it from far off could more than double costs.

Nobody envisions Miami Beach disappearing to the dune line, but the sand shortage has delayed for more than a year plans to fill a number of persistent erosion ''hot spots'' -- from 63rd to 84th streets, as well as at 27th, 44th and 55th streets.

It also could push back Broward's plan to replenish the thinning stretch from northern Fort Lauderdale to Pompano Beach.

Waterfront hotels, condos and homes aren't considered at immediate risk, but the safety margin narrows along with that protective buffer of beachfront.

''The beach is as good as one storm,'' said Espinosa, whose Department of Environmental Resource Management runs Miami-Dade's renourishment program. ``We've been very fortunate. We've had a number of storms, but we didn't really get a direct blow.''

THE NARROW LIP

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection classifies more than 40 percent of the state's 825 miles of beachfront as ''critically eroded,'' including much of the East Coast.

But a geological feature hidden under the waves separates South Florida from the rest of the state.

Miami-Dade and Broward sit on the narrowest lip of the continental shelf, a shallow underwater ridge bordering the peninsula. It's only about a mile and half wide until southern Palm Beach County, when it begins to broaden to 10, 20 and more than 50 miles farther north.

The result is slim pickings off South Florida for dredgers, which slurp sand from ''borrow sites'' in 60 to 90 feet of water and don't have gear to go much deeper -- even if there were some undiscovered Sahara beneath the deep blue.

After decades as the state's busiest and biggest sand pumper, Miami-Dade is down to one small site the county wants to keep as an emergency reserve, Espinosa said.

Broward, said Higgins, has perhaps a million cubic yards at one northern site, enough for a major project, but it's mixed with rubble difficult and expensive to screen out.

The search for a suitable substitute has proved complicated.

In the Sunshine State, there are endless buckets of sand offshore and on, but much of it isn't up to snuff for beach use. There are state and county standards for everything from grain size to color. Sand too hard or dark, for instance, might discourage sea turtles from nesting or raise the temperature around buried eggs.

So far, replacement sands come with problems or high prices. Last year, Miami-Dade and the state spent $3.2 million just to haul sand for three small projects from inland quarries 100 miles away near the Lake Wales Ridge, Florida's beachfront several million years ago.

Hauling that sand for a major renourishment effort would be a logistical nightmare and staggeringly expensive, with one preliminary bid roughly double the dredging costs.

''You're talking millions of cubic yards,'' Espinosa said. ``It's just not feasible. You would have trucks lined up on Collins Avenue back to back.''

There also is sand off counties to the north, where the continental shelf widens past the three-mile state limit into federal waters.

''There is probably going to be a lot of demand for that federal sand if it turns out to be good sand,'' Higgins said.

But it's likely to be zealously guarded for local projects. Last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed scooping sand for Miami Beach from the St. Lucie Shoal, a ridge about five miles offshore that is popular with anglers and helps protect a stretch of coast occupied by a nuclear plant.

The plan quickly drew heavy flack, notably from state Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who vowed to fight moving a single grain ''until the bitter end,'' according to The Palm Beach Post.

The Corps, which oversees and bankrolls many of Florida's beach-building projects, dropped the idea. Miami-Dade then asked about dipping into Palm Beach sand, but much of it proved of poor quality, and that county has its own plans for the good stuff.

Charlie Stevens, Corps project manager for Miami Beach, said those rejections don't necessarily eliminate other sites in federal waters, but clearly any ''sand grabs'' will face fights. The first skirmishes have already produced a bill before the Legislature that would ensure county commissions are informed and consulted anytime somebody eyes sand off their shore.

Paden Woodruff, administrator of the Florida Deparment of Environmental Protection's beach management section, said the state is considering ways to address the shortage.

New techniques could allow dredgers to tap additional sand now hard to reach, he said, perhaps by developing ways to process ''marginal'' sand or to work closer to sand-surrounded reefs protected by wide buffer zones.

IMPORTANT GRAINS

The state is assembling an inventory of offshore supplies -- and if any good deep-sea deposits are pinpointed, dredge companies could adapt gear to tackle them.

''Certainly if there was demand, it would be a no-brainer,'' Woodruff said.

For now, however, importing sand appears the most promising option for South Florida.

''It could be the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos, the Dominican Republic, places like that that would be willing to sell the sand,'' Espinosa said.

But that option also remains uncertain. Under a clause in federal law, inserted primarily to protect the American dredging industry, the Corps must rule out all domestic sources as too costly or environmentally damaging before signing off on foreign grains.

Stevens expects to finish an initial report on options for Miami Beach -- the first project affected -- later this month. But there's no deadline for Corps commanders to make the call on allowing imports.

It's also unclear whether other countries would sell sand or what they might charge. The Bahamas, for example, has been cool to past proposals.

''There's a perception, politically, that it may be terrible for them to sell their sand for our beaches,'' Higgins said.

NEXT STEPS

In the meantime, Miami-Dade and Broward are trying to devise ways to reduce erosion and retain more of the sand that accumulates naturally on some sections of beach.

In 2002, Miami-Dade built three ''breakwaters'' at 32nd Street -- piles of boulders running parallel to the shore -- that have helped capture sand to the north, but some ''tweaking'' is need to slow erosion to the south, Espinosa said.

Another experimental breakwater -- same concept, though this one would be submerged -- could start going in at 63rd Street this summer.

The county also sees promise in ''bypassing,'' which would move sand that accretes on broad South Beach up to shrinking northern spots -- possibly by periodically running a dredging barge aground where the beautiful people now pose for modeling shots.

Broward has installed a series of jetties to reduce losses at John U. Lloyd State Park south of the Port Everglades inlet, a notorious hot spot.

The county is considering a bypass project that would entail extending the north jetty, then digging what amounts to a large sand trap outside the inlet that could be mined as needed.

Broward is also experimenting with recycled ground glass as a sand substitute.

''There will never be enough of it to build a beach or anything, but it could be a supplemental type of material and we may need it,'' Higgins said. ``The money is getting harder to come by. . . . It's crunch time, pretty much.''