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Tuesday, Jun 19, 2018
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Endless erosion battle a matter of money

Every four years or so, the beach a block away from Gwenda Barnitz's home disappears into the Gulf of Mexico.

“Since I've lived here, it washes away underneath all of the entrances to the beach. You have a staircase that's hanging out over nothing,” said Barnitz, a 28-year resident of Sunset Beach at the narrow southern tip of Treasure Island.

In fact, Sunset Beach and the island's northernmost beach, Sunshine Beach, have been eroding rapidly for at least as long as people have lived here, and, for more than 40 years, heavy machines have shown up every few years to pump millions of cubic yards of sand from the ocean back onto the diminished shore.

Since the first federal beach renourishment project in 1969, about $25 million in today's dollars have been spent on Treasure Island alone to fight a natural process that's been happening for ages on barrier islands, researchers say.

This summer, a combination of federal, state and local money totaling $16 million will be spent to pour a half-million cubic yards of sand along these slender beaches in Treasure Island, as well as Upham Beach and Pass-a-Grille Beach to the south on Long Key.

And it will all have to be done again and again and again — indefinitely — until the money runs out, people move out or sea level rise drives everyone out to seek higher and drier ground.

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A few coastal scientists and fiscally conservative politicians point to the apparent futility of the billions spent across the nation in the past 50 years to stop sand from doing what it's naturally inclined to do.

But the majority maintain that although renourishment may not stop the sea forever, the perpetual investment in protecting homes, businesses and a multibillion-dollar tourism industry, not to mention lives, is well worth the cost.

“We have infrastructure and we have an economy that depends on healthy beaches, and, frankly, we have public safety that depends on healthy beaches,” said U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores.

“I would challenge anyone to defend the notion that 10 years ago we should have let the waters wash over Gulf Boulevard and put all of the first floors of our hotels underwater.”

In the late 1960s, it was obvious that several Pinellas County beaches were in trouble.

On the upper end of Long Key, waves lapped against a seawall on Blind Pass channel, and the beach to the south had vanished.

On the north side of the dredged waterway, the swath of sand called Sunset Beach essentially was gone, a phenomenon that was occurring along several channels up and down the county's barrier islands.

Although the federal government had invested in coastal projects including seawall construction and beach renourishment for many years, Treasure Island's 2-mile, $1.4 million project in 1969 was the first in Florida for the long-running federal program administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In the 45 years since, the corps has returned more than a dozen times and pumped 3 million cubic yards of sand back onto the beach from offshore shoals and nearby channels.

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Treasure Island's erosion problems are among the worst in the state, but its sand losses and replacement costs pale in comparison to those of other beach destinations.

An estimated $140 million in today's dollars has been spent over the years to restore 12.3 million cubic yards of sand at Miami Beach, and New York's Rockaway Beach has required $216 million and 29 million cubic yards, according to research compiled by Western Carolina University's Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines in Cullowhee, North Carolina.

“We're talking about billions of dollars, approaching tens of billions” nationally, said coastal geologist Rob Young, the university program's director, noting that damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2010 has driven federal renourishment spending to all-time highs.

A good deal of erosion occurs naturally on barrier islands, which had been reshaped by storms, tides and sea level changes many times before the age of hotels and condominiums.

Digging out and modifying navigational channels between the islands has accelerated the process, so beaches on either side of waterways such as Johns Pass and Blind Pass have become particular problem spots.

On Florida's Gulf Coast, a river of sand naturally drifts north to south, but the flow is interrupted by these widened gaps between the islands. The only reason all this movement creates an issue is that people have built permanent homes or hotel towers on or near impermanent sands.

“Obviously, if we didn't put any houses there, we wouldn't have any erosion problems. The sand would just move around,” said Ping Wang, a coastal geology professor at University of South Florida.

Maybe if developers had fully appreciated this phenomenon, they would have stayed away or concentrated construction in the middle of the islands, where large amounts of sand tend to collect over time, creating wider, more stable beaches.

Restrictions for building on or near sand dunes have become tighter over the years and after more study, meaning the towers along Blind Pass couldn't be built today.

Researchers such as Young aren't sure those limits are strict enough.

“We have understood all of this very well for the past 20 years, and the idea we would still be putting stuff in harm's way and that the state would still allow high-rises on barrier islands is just nuts,” he said.

It's not only a matter of scientific knowledge about shifting sands, but financial responsibility, he said.

“In the 18th and 19th centuries, coastal communities moved back from the coast all the time. They knew the risk. They were living in their primary homes. They were entirely financially responsible for themselves and their communities,” Young said.

As long as the government bears most of the cost for restoring eroded beaches, people will continue to live there, blithely unaware of the billions of federal dollars it takes to prevent them from being washed away, he said.

Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency have raised similar arguments, suggesting after big disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or Sandy that some coastal communities should not be rebuilt.

Faced with $24 billion in debt, the FEMA-run National Flood Insurance Program slowly is increasing federal premiums on properties at high risk for flooding to better reflect their true risk.

Most efforts to discourage living by the water or to encourage people to move out have not been well-received.

“Most folks at the coast, when you suggest that, they just laugh at you,” Young said.

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Though sustaining beach development is expensive, the alternative isn't economically desirable, says Harry Simmons, president of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, which lobbies to protect coastal communities.

“I don't see people picking up condo buildings and moving them away, so I think protecting them is the solution,” said Simmons, longtime mayor of tiny Caswell Beach, North Carolina.

“What you're talking about is abandoning them and letting them fall into the ocean, and the cost of that is going to be even greater than the beach nourishment projects.”

The Army Corps of Engineers tends to agree.

In the aftermath of storms like Sandy, the corps must weigh the costs versus benefits of rebuilding devastated communities, and the federal government has the option of buying out the properties if reconstruction costs are too high, said Jackie Keiser, of the Army Corps' Jacksonville district office.

“Right now, the value of real estate in most coastal areas is incredibly high, so it doesn't make economic sense to buy it out,” said Keiser, who studied coastal geology at USF before joining the corps.

Nowhere in the nation is that value higher than in Florida, where a 2013 study by the corps concluded the total amount of tax revenue generated annually by beach tourists, $6.2 billion, is about 100 times the amount spent statewide on beach renourishment each year.

Beach tourists spent an estimated $71.8 billion in 2012 and support the state's No. 1 industry in terms of jobs, according to the study.

That's why recently elected Congressman Jolly has taken up predecessor Bill Young's mission in Washington to keep renourishment dollars flowing into Pinellas. The federal government typically foots 60 percent of the bill for beach projects, and the state and county contribute 20 percent each.

This government money is not “pork,” nor is it a waste of taxpayers' money; it's a public investment, Jolly said.

Beach towns in New Jersey with wide, well-nourished beaches withstood Sandy's wrath much better than those with depleted shores, he said.

“If we don't invest in it, then we're investing on the backside and we get none of the benefits because all of the taxpayer dollars then are going to recovery,” Jolly said.

Though some politicians from inland states have criticized government funding for beach restoration, Jolly said there generally is an atmosphere of support in Washington for continuing these projects well into the future.

How far into the future it will make economic and practical sense to keep resisting the ocean is another matter.

Whether from the gradual rise of sea levels or a slow tightening of federal budgets, Pinellas County leaders anticipate this odd method of expanding the beach may no longer be viable one day.

The county's tourism agency puts aside $2 million to $3 million a year from bed tax collections for beach renourishment. But as revenue from the 5 percent tax on hotel stays accumulates, commissioners have contemplated putting more money aside in the event federal funding dries up.

Beaches, not movie star dolphins such as Winter or famous Spanish painters such as Salvador Dalí, are the main reason people come to the area. In the county's most erosion-prone spots, those white, sandy beaches could be gone within years without a sand infusion.

If it weren't for the giant yellow T-groin barriers placed in the ocean and consistent renourishment, Upham Beach could wash away entirely within a decade, says Andy Squires, the county's coastal manager.

“They'd still have beaches. It's just the beach would be in a different place,” Squires said.


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