Posted on December 5, 2022
MIAMI — Florida’s sandy beaches aren’t just beautiful and one of the biggest money-makers in the state’s tourism-based economy. They’re also the first line of defense against storm surge flooding during hurricanes.
Now, after hits on both coasts during the 2022 hurricane season, those beaches are in desperate need of repair. Even before hurricane season began on June 1, 426 of Florida’s 825 miles of sandy beaches were listed as “critically eroded” in a June report from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Then, hurricanes Ian and Nicole delivered a one-two punch of beach-shredding wind and waves. The damage to beaches was severe, particularly along the the northeast Florida coast.
“Our dune system is a coastal protection system,” said Jonathan Lord, the emergency management director for Flagler County in northeast Florida. “Because the dunes were so damaged from Ian, it didn’t take much for Nicole to further damage them and cause flooding in many neighborhoods.”
For decades, Florida has been restoring its beaches by dredging or trucking in more sand. But the practice is becoming more challenging — and expensive, thanks to the rising cost of beach-quality sand. Offshore sand deposits, especially on Florida’s southeast coast, are dwindling after decades of repeated beach restoration projects. As local governments squabble over the right to use the remaining sand, its price is rising.
“Sand is like gold,” said Michelle Hamor, the planning chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ office in Norfolk, Virginia, which is leading the effort to develop a $6 billion plan to protect Miami-Dade County from storm surge. “There are a lot of projects that rely on it, and it’s a limited resource.”
And looming sea level rise, which quickens the pace of beach erosion on developed coastlines, will only make Florida’s future efforts to protect its beaches more complicated and costly.
There’s plenty of sand sitting in relatively shallow water on the continental shelf that rings Florida. But not all of it is good enough for the state’s beaches. Sand that has the wrong color or grain type can harm plants and animals, like the sea turtles that build their nests along the Florida coast.
There are economic considerations, too: Florida spends billions of dollars a year advertising its pristine, white-sand beaches to tourists. Loading the shoreline up with inferior quality sand could make the state a less attractive vacation destination.
Since 1935, Florida has dredged or dug up about half a trillion tons of high-quality sand to maintain its eroding beaches, according to the National Beach Nourishment Database developed by the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association and the Army Corps. But the state’s supply of good sand is running low — and once those deposits are gone, they won’t come back any time soon, according to Stephen Leatherman, a professor of coastal science at Florida International University.
“For all practical purposes, they’re used up,” Leatherman said. New sand takes thousands of years to form, and existing sand is hard to reuse. Once beach-quality sand gets eroded away from the shoreline, it winds up scattered across the continental shelf in thin layers that are too skimpy to dredge again.
Miami Beach may offer a vision of Florida’s future. In 1968, the Army Corps began a beach restoration project for about a dozen miles of shoreline in Miami Beach, Surfside and Bal Harbour that is still running. But Miami-Dade County, which sits on an exceptionally narrow stretch of continental shelf that is just a mile and a half wide in some places, exhausted its offshore sand supply in 2014.
Ever since, Miami Beach has had to rely on sand trucked in from Central Florida, which is more expensive. Several mines are scattered along an inland sand deposit known as the Cypresshead Formation, a stretch of extinct beach that runs west of Lake Okeechobee up toward Jacksonville along what used to be Florida’s coastline. Dump trucks haul the sand from Central Florida down to Miami Beach, trundling along Collins Avenue before dropping about a dozen cubic yards of sand onto the eroding beach.
The Army Corps is currently spending $40 million to truck in 835,000 cubic yards of sand to restore about two miles of shoreline in Miami Beach, a project that will require tens of thousands of truck trips. The budget comes out to a little less than $50 per cubic yard of sand — a once unthinkable price for beach restoration.
“For sand, you’re now spending $30 to $50 a cubic yard,” said Karyn Erickson, president of Erickson Consulting Engineers, a Sarasota-based firm that has been working on beach restorations in Florida for three decades. “In the mid-90s, we thought it was expensive if we were paying $12 per cubic yard. $10 to $12 was the standard rate.”
In the future, under current projections, Florida’s beaches will likely erode more quickly thanks to climate change. “Sea level rise is responsible for beach erosion,” said Leatherman. “There’s no way around it.”