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Coastal crisis: We’re running out of sand along Florida’s beaches—what’s the solution?

August 06, 2018

By Matthew Starr, Jeff Tabar, PE, D.CE and Alan Reynolds

It takes creativity in both approach/methodology and funding to take care of eroding beaches

We’re running out of sand in Florida. This is no surprise; much has been written on this subject. Florida has been completing beach nourishment using offshore sand sources for more than 45 years. Unfortunately, over many decades we’ve depleted our nearshore sand sources, making beach renourishment more expensive and difficult.  

Stantec practitioners Matt Starr, Jeff Tabar, and Al Reynolds weigh-in from a coastal engineering and land planning perspective to discuss new ways to approach this issue going forward.

Renourishment project in Naples, Florida.

What is causing beach erosion, and what are communities doing about it?

Matt: In addition to increased hurricanes, storms, and sea level rise, much of the beach erosion is caused by man-made activity such as the construction of jetties and seawalls and poor planning for coastal development along the shoreline.

Jeff: It has been estimated that modified inlets produce 80-85% of the erosion on the Florida east coast (Dean, Pilkey, and Houston, 1988). Further, the hardening of the shoreline with seawalls and rock revetments exacerbates the erosion and impacts adjacent properties. Beach renourishment has been shown to mitigate erosion by advancing the shoreline and providing storm protection to upland structures.

Currently, some Florida counties are buying sand from inland mines or from other countries. One option in Florida is to buy sand from the Bahamas and other areas in the Caribbean. Take Miami Dade as an example—they’ve exhausted much of their nearshore sand supply, so they’re exploring getting sand from upland sources or from the Bahamas. But in South Florida, there’s a problem with moving the sand—it is expensive. Another less expensive option is to source sand from inland mines; excavate a borrow pit, remove the material and then produce beach-quality sand. The drawback with mines is that, although they are a great place to produce beach compatible sand in a controlled environment, they have limited quantities and constraints based on their location to each project site.

Beach erosion is a high priority challenge—and not just in Florida. To help solve it, we need to develop creative funding solutions.

Are there any new techniques to support the needed investment in our coastlines?  

Al: There are artificial beach dunes such as those found along Park Shore Beach in Naples. Here a man-made dune encapsulates a stormwater infiltration system and reduces outflows from existing stormwater beach discharge pipes by diverting stormwater beneath the sand dunes. It also provides a recreational amenity by creating a pathway along the beach and makes a further setback for buildings along the beach. However, continued maintenance is required, which of course has continued operational costs.

Jeff: There are advancements in dredge equipment to reach deeper sand resources that were not feasible in the past. Also, with new technology (LiDAR, drones, etc.) we can more closely monitor beach topography changes, justifying more economic renourishment projects. Lastly, the beneficial use of dredge materials (sand)—while this is not new technology, it is one of the principal areas that needs improvement along Florida’s shoreline and for sediment management. Millions of cubic yards of sand are dredged each year from ports and navigation channels and are placed in disposal sites located many miles offshore. These disposal sites are designed to dispose of the sediments only with no consideration to the erosion problems that exist along the shoreline. Simply put, the solution is to place this sand along Florida’s shoreline.

Port Charlotte Beach renourishment project.

Is there a “hot potato syndrome” surrounding how we address beach renourishment and most importantly, who is responsible?

Al: Most comprehensive plans in the state of Florida have policies that are directing populations away from shorelines, high coastal hazard areas, coastal barrier islands—any place susceptible to flooding, or sea level rise, etc.

However, the highest population densities are along the shoreline in Florida. And the significant issue is this: will communities limit redevelopment in these high-density areas (meaning losing future tax incomes and tourist dollars)? And despite the economic allure, are policy planners doing our best to educate the public about why moving inland is the right choice for their community? I think that’s where planners in Florida can play a key role in helping communities understand the land loss issues facing our state, and how to plan appropriately.

Florida recently approved $50 million for beach renourishment. Will that funding make a dent in what we need to do?

Matt: It is a nice start. But, it’s far from enough. For example, Collier County estimates spending around $30 million in Fall 2018 on beach renourishment projects. Theoretically, 70% of the funding could be used on just one project. The 2017 hurricane activity did significant damage to the coast and both sides of the state are in desperate need of funding.

Beach renourishment along the Delaware Bay at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.

So, how do we address the issue of funding that is just not there?

Matt: Beach erosion is a high priority challenge—and not just in Florida. It plagues the entire Gulf Coast and a good portion of the Atlantic coastline. To help solve it, we need to develop creative funding solutions.

Recognizing the difficulty in adequately funding these essential shoreline renourishment projects, in the past I’ve looked to our internal team of specialists skilled at analyzing and identifying revenue resources for guidance.

Jeff: Our team made up of coastal engineering specialists and financial experts have provided suggested solutions that include regional sediment management planning, beneficial use of dredge sediments, grouping neighboring projects together, environmental enhancement funding, and examining incorporating taxes and/or tourism fees into our plans. Challenging times require creative solutions from innovative professionals.

Al: I agree with Matt and Jeff, and our Financial Services & Management team can provide analyses to a County that identifies funding gaps and revenue sources to help officials plan and fund future renourishment efforts. One tool our experts have access to is a funding portal—an online tool that aggregates data daily from 15,000 government and private funding sources. And since 1985, Stantec has helped clients secure over $1 billion in grant funding.  

Recently, our team worked in concert with attorneys for the Town of Longboat Key in Florida to reevaluate appropriate tax rates and the associated tax rolls to solidify the continued funding of their annual beach renourishment and maintenance services. This helped the Town secure a regular revenue stream for coastal projects and is just one example of how proper financial planning can help alleviate and plan for future funding needs.

There’s no easy fix for our shorelines, but, it’s time to commit to renewing our beaches and finding new and creative ways to pay for it.

  • Matthew Starr

    A coastal engineer working along the Gulf of Mexico, Matt has dedicated his life and career to protecting coastlines through beach nourishment, dredging, stabilization, restoration, and other services.

    Contact Matthew
  • Jeff Tabar, PE, D.CE

    As a coastal and civil engineer, Jeff brings forth creative solutions to complex engineering problems every day.

    Contact Jeff
  • Alan Reynolds

    Alan is a regional business leader for community development, and he has led a more than 40-year career of master planning, community development, and environmental design.

    Contact Alan
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