If Our Shorelines Could Talk
Our beautiful beaches are not only why people move to the Palm Beaches and Treasure Coast, they’re why people stay here. But maintaining them is a different story. We examine what must be done to keep our inlets open, our beaches robust, and – perhaps most importantly – our residents and visitors happy with the state of our shorelines.
From the backyard of their Sailfish Point home, Don and Sarah Schumacher often savor perfect panoramas of the Atlantic Ocean, the St. Lucie Inlet and the lush, green St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park. But ever since November 2013, this picturesque setting has been invaded by the living embodiment of a photo bomb.
Aesthetically, the vessel looks like any other dredge. Suffice it to say no one will ever mistake it for a Sunseeker.
Resembling the offspring of an oil rig and an ice breaker, this sprawling, hulking apparatus looms over the Schumachers’ veranda, drawing the eye like a sore tooth attracts the tongue. It clangs continuously 24 hours a day, including every holiday, with a roar audible from inside the house. At night – all night, every night – it’s lit up as brightly as the high beams of a semi. And it spews an oily soot that soils pool furniture and smears over sliding glass doors.
“One day,” Sarah Schumacher says, “they weren’t running and my daughter Megan said, ‘Mom, it actually feels like home again.’ Next morning, it cranked right back up and hasn’t stopped since.”
The necessity of this dredging operation draws no disagreement from the Schumachers.
“I understand they have to move the sand out,” Don Schumacher says. “Do it, but in an effective manner. You can’t leave a tractor running 24 hours a day.”
Communities along the southeast coast of Florida are confronting a multitude of sobering realities about beach and inlet maintenance. For residents and regulars, exactly how sand is dredged, pumped and moved means the difference between a minor inconvenience and a major imposition.
These are government projects, and that “how” is determined by the lowest qualified bid. Competition for federal and state funding sources – longtime cost-share partners in such operations – remains intense.
The same may soon hold true for sources of sand.
Hourglass running on time for action
“Whatever we do at one end of the system holds significant consequences for the other end of the system, not just regionally but even globally,” says John Haddox, Martin County commissioner and member of the Coastal Ocean Task Force. “There are so many factors in play. From the tax dollars to the property values to the public safety issues, the quality-of-life issues, the marine industries’ issues, habitat protection, reef protection, even climate change and sea-level rise. This is one of the biggest challenges there is.”
Beach management has been a challenge for decades. In 1986 the Legislature adopted the Florida Beach Management Funding Assistance Program. The program enables municipal governments and special taxing districts to attain financial assistance for nearly 50 percent of project costs. Since the Legislature dedicated funding for beach management in 1998, $541 million has been appropriated statewide – addressing more than 225 miles of beach.
For locally and federally authorized projects, each level of government assumes one third of the project cost along with the state. Costs are shared for the design, engineering and environmental studies and monitoring of beach restoration, nourishment, inlet management and inlet sand-transfer projects.
“This year – no guarantees – we got excellent funding for Florida beaches,” says Jackie Keiser, coastal and navigation chief for the Army Corps of Engineers, which often takes part in the funding and engineering of coastal-management and inlet-maintenance projects.
That’s encouraging for municipalities strapped with paying the tab for costly inlet dredge and beach management projects. Still, making sure the funding is diverted to needed projects in Palm Beach and Martin counties requires the proper persuasion – and point of contact.
“The Corps cannot lobby for funding,” Keiser adds. “The public’s got to fight for their projects and tell the elected officials why they’re important. It has to be elected officials and congressmen, especially.”
Ripple effect of renourishment investment
When Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Northeast in 2012, it caused shoaling problems to navigational channels along the East Coast, making it difficult for watercraft to pass.
Congress approved a $60 billion aid package that provided funds for the Army Corps of Engineers to restore navigation and beaches. Rep. Patrick Murphy, whose congressional District 18 encompasses coastlines from Fort Pierce to Jupiter, secured $12 million in Sandy funds for dredging and renourishment projects in the Fort Pierce Inlet, the St. Lucie Inlet and the Jupiter/Carlin Renourishment Project.
“Beach renourishment isn’t just about recreational needs, it’s an economic situation,” Murphy says. “Think of how many people come to our area for the beaches alone, driving our tourism industry.”
The economic return is measurable, says Leanne Welch, environmental manager for Palm Beach County.
“These projects are not pork,” she says. “Every dollar that we spend on the beach has been proven to return about $48 to the local economy. That’s a heck of a return on an investment – better than any stocks.”
That’s why many local communities are investing in renourishment projects like the Jupiter/Carlin project, which restores park land and buildings threatened from erosion caused by Sandy and other unnamed storms in the Atlantic, as well as the interruptions of sand caused by the Jupiter Inlet. Drawing about 950,000 cubic yards of sand from offshore sources, the project will broaden beaches by an average of 100 feet and restore depleted dunes.
“Renourishment projects have a great ROI [return on investment] protecting our communities from disaster and damage that could cost millions or even billions down the road,” Murphy says.
That prospect – the potential damage from a direct hurricane hit or even something less direct a la Sandy – has the officials of some of the most vulnerable communities planning more proactively than ever before.
NOT burying their heads in the sand
With a seasonal population of 30,000 people on a 16-mile-long barrier island, the Town of Palm Beach is the easternmost town in Florida. That makes setting priorities pretty simple.
“Coastal protection,” Town Manager Peter Elwell says, “is the number one priority for the town.”
Over the last few years town officials took inventory of former and current coastal-management practices, even seeking review from out-of-state experts. The result: a 10-year plan, an $85 million price tag and a crystal-clear commitment.
“We’re prepared to fund that $85 million with town money if possible,” Elwell says.
Although historically the Town of Palm Beach has not received Corps funding, Elwell says, over the years the town has partnered with the state on beach projects, with the state contributing around $20 million.
“That helped us get to where we are,” Elwell says. “Going forward, it’s not a reasonable expectation that there will be as much funding as there has been in the past.”
Like the inletand beach-management operations themselves, reasonable expectations regarding funding are shaped by local factors.
“We certainly do have to adjust our strategies (for funding),” Martin County Commissioner Doug Smith says. “But at the same point we still need to hold our partners accountable. That’s both the state and the federal governments. Safe and navigable inlets still have partners. It’s still incumbent upon us as a county to manage that as best we can.”
The St. Lucie Inlet is a federal inlet as authorized by Congress. While the state acts as a funding partner in maintaining it, Martin County remains the local sponsor. With $6.5 million in funding from Sandy damage, the Corps recently dredged approximately 200,000 cubic yards from the St. Lucie Inlet.
When the Corps exhausted its portion of the funding, Martin County remained on scene – aka the Schumachers’ backyard – spending $5 million in hopes of removing another 150,000-plus cubic yards.
“That dredge is there to improve navigation,” Keiser explains. “As a side benefit we’re able to use that sand (for beach nourishment). But the goal is not beach placement; it’s navigation.”
A line in the sand
But that’s not exactly the case, says Gene Rauth, town manager for Jupiter Island, who points to state laws requiring that bypassed sand be delivered to southern beaches. Here’s why: Inlets open access to the ocean, but they also prevent naturally occurring sand deposits from replenishing beaches just to the south.
“Think of a conveyor belt carrying sand along the beaches,” Rauth says. “Manmade inlets blockade sand, leaving the down-drift beaches cannibalized of this vital resource. Jupiter Island has what used to be buildable lots that are now underwater due to erosion.”
To make up for the loss, manmade inlets are engineered with impoundment basins – undersea culverts that trap the sand that’s interrupted in transit. If not dredged in a timely matter, sand overflows from the basin and into the channel. Shoaling then sets in, making traversing the inlet more hazardous and possibly impassable for larger boats.
Over the last 50 years, Jupiter Island has spent more than $46 million on beach-protection measures. Timely sand bypassing retrieves sand for restoring the Island’s beaches, a provision set in the county’s 1995 inlet management plan. Yet it is a source of ongoing debate between the Island and Martin County.
“All sand is not created equal,” Rauth says, maintaining that sand sorted in the inlet is coarser, and more durable and lasting in beach nourishment operations. “And sand is not a renewable resource.”
Turf – er – surf wars
Without question sand is in demand. Beaches down in Broward and Miami-Dade counties suffered particular depletion during Sandy, as well as due to regular erosion, threatening the populous region’s coastline residences and tourism industry. In some areas, A1A washed out so badly that the rebuilt road had to be reduced by a full lane.
To improve the situation, last fall the Army Corps and state Department of Environmental Protection ventured away from Broward and Dade in search of new borrow sites – offshore piles of sand safe for beach nourishment. Local governments rely on borrow sites within three miles for replenishing depleted beaches – especially when inlet bypassing is irregular. The Corps and DEP zeroed in on borrow sites in state waters three miles off shore and federal waters farther out – all off of the Treasure Coast.
“Right now, we’re looking at several borrow areas off shore in Martin, St. Lucie and I believe Palm Beach,” Keiser says.
Studies show up to 100 million cubic yards of available sand for the next 50 years with plenty left over, Keiser says. Local stakeholders are invited to reveal any borrow sites they’ve investigated or invested in with intentions of tapping such locations to replenish their own eroded beaches and “we will not go there,” Keiser says.
The public can take comfort knowing such agreements, as well as possible permitting prohibitions, bind the Corps to such preclusions, Keiser says.
“It’s going to be in writing,” she says. “It’s a public document for everyone to see. And we’re bound by that.
Mr. Sandman bringing no dreams
Such cooperation is less of a concern on the dredging project invading the Schumachers’ backyard – which happens to border the impoundment basin. Cost, Keiser says, matters most.
“We worry about how much it costs,” she said. “Honestly, there’s less concern if somebody has to look at it for a few weeks.”
In this case, it’s six months.
Martin County engineers acknowledge the availability of swifter methods – such as two clam-shell dredges. Or less-disruptive methods, such as the smaller hydraulic dredge, which produces a softer, steadier sound by comparison. Overall, it might even be more efficient.
But the cost is always a concern. As is permitting.
In a letter to President Obama requesting 2015 funding for beach nourishment projects, Rep. Murphy urged the administration to “review regulations to isolate effective ways to promote the establishment of pilot projects and programs that can offer cost-effective and innovative solutions to beach erosion.”
Perhaps such innovations will address the navigation, beach nourishment and nuisance issues affecting everyone involved.
The Schumachers can only dream – just maybe not yet.
“And good luck,” says Don Schumacher, motioning to the droning dredge behind him, “getting a restful night’s sleep.”