Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Sand, Glorious Sand

With the hurricane season upon us, Southwest Florida's vulnerability stands out like a sore thumb.

Consider the following.

  • Over half of the population lives within two miles of the shore.
  • Coastal construction is soaring, and every structure is exposed.
  • Insurance rates are spiking, particularly for flood coverage.
But what would be affected most are our beaches. Our most important tourist asset could be wiped out overnight, or at least severely damaged.

Collier County's beaches are in relatively good shape right now. Unlike some in northern Florida and on the east coast, the beaches here have escaped major damage. Annual truck hauls of quarry sand have repaired erosion and maintained beach widths in most places of 90-100 feet. Not bad.

But the vulnerability remains.

To head off catastrophic sand loss, county officials are considering a "resiliency" approach -- beefing up the beaches before a big storm hits. The idea is to add a foot or so to the dunes, buttress the berms and extend widths to 150 feet where possible.

That would largely fill the beach template, we are told, including the underwater area, and provide a beach that would be sustainable well into the future. One big project with smaller follow-ups.

It sounds right. And it would take a lot of sand, up to 1 million cubic yards, far more than could be provided by truck haul. Gary McAlpin, head of Coastal Zone Management, is looking at off-shore hopper dredging -- likely at a site off Captiva Island, some 40 miles away. This would be an expensive proposition, estimated to cost $30 million or more.

Where would we get that kind of money? Not from the Feds, who are cutting funds for projects of this sort. And certainly not from the State. Tallahassee is providing $50 million for the entire 825-mile Florida coastline. 

The money would have to be raised locally, likely from the Tourist Development Tax, a 4% tariff on hotel stays and other visitor accommodations. As things now stand, 47% of tourist tax revenues go for marketing, 41% for beaches and 12% for museums.

To grow the beach reserve so "resiliency" could be funded, two proposals have been made, both involving changing how the tourist tax is spent. Ed Staros, General Manager of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, would direct 60% to beaches and 40% to marketing, with museums to be funded elsewhere. Collier Commissioner Penny Taylor proposes a 62.5/37.5 split between beaches and marketing.

Either plan would be a winner, boosting beach funding by $4.1 to 4.7 million a year. The extra money would go a long way toward making "resiliency" possible and ensuring beach longevity. 

What about other approaches, things that don't involve replacing sand that gets washed away?
Dune plantings, off-shore mangroves, even hardening with groins and jetties.

Hardening is a non-starter. Commissioner Andy Solis says permitting would be very difficult today. And environmentalists would fight it soothe and nail. Additional plantings would help, but there's no evidence they would stand up to severe storms.

Beach dewatering, such as with pressure-equalized modules (perforated pipes buried in the sand), has been proposed. But the long-term effectiveness is suspect, and it takes years to see the benefits, if any. Results in Europe have been mixed, and no PEMs are used in the U.S. today.

So it appears prophylactic nourishment, "resiliency," though imperfect, may be our best bet. Now we just have to come up with the money.

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