Increasing sea levels lead to more frequent and costly ‘beach renourishment’ projects in Florida

Col. James L. Booth, the Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, commemorated the commencement of the Duval County Shore Protection Project with a short ceremony. The project aims to replenish 10 miles of beach with fresh sand and will be funded by taxpayers at a cost of $32 million. A photo captured by Mark Rankin of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was taken during the event.

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When my children were young, they adored going to the beach. They would enthusiastically splash around in the water, construct magnificent sandcastles, and eagerly gather the most captivating seashells they could find.

But one afternoon, one of my boys emitted a piercing scream that immediately grabbed my attention. It turns out, he had picked up a magnificent lightning whelk shell with the intention of adding it to his ever-growing collection. However, little did he know that this innocent act would soon turn into a mistake of great consequence.

“I can’t believe it, it just squirted me!” he exclaimed in surprise.

I drew attention to the “foot” of the living creature that was still inside the shell. I explained that this is what had squirted him. Then, I proposed the idea of capturing some photographs of the shell before returning it to its original location, allowing the mollusk to continue its journey undisturbed.

Every time I hear about a Florida community planning to “renourish” its beach by importing sand from elsewhere, I am reminded of that story.

Beaches offer more than just a backdrop for partying like Frankie and Annette or a playground for building sandcastles and gathering shells. They play a crucial role as a protective barrier for our state’s coastline, similar to a team of vigilant bouncers guarding a club entrance. Their purpose is to shield the mainland from the destructive impact of powerful storms and their surges.

Moving around, waxing here, waning there, they are pushed and pulled as the waves wash their sand this way and that. This rope-a-dope routine, known as “littoral drift” by scientists, is a constant struggle for these particles.

The barrier islands, much like the whelk my son discovered, serve a natural purpose that may not align with our human desires.

Building structures on top of the islands became an issue once people sought to profit from the picturesque ocean view. Houses, shops, and condos were unable to adapt to the islands’ dynamic nature, unlike the islands themselves, which constantly shifted and moved. Consequently, any fixed structures would be at risk of collapsing if they were unable to remain in one place.

Barrier islands are in a constant state of movement, a phenomenon that we often label as “beach erosion.” In our attempt to exert control over nature, we persistently truck in vast amounts of sand from other locations, spending exorbitant sums of money in the process.

Tax dollars often end up in unexpected places, like the beach, even for those who don’t live near the coast. A recent report from the South Florida Sun Sentinel highlighted a project in Hillsboro Beach that used $5 million of taxpayer money to bring in 3,600 truckloads of sand to combat erosion.

The Tampa Bay Business Journal reported that Pass-a-Grille Beach is set to receive a substantial amount of funding to combat erosion. The beach will benefit from a multimillion-dollar investment in the form of sand replenishment.

WJXT-TV reported that the Army Corps of Engineers has initiated a 16-week renourishment project for Duval County beaches. The project aims to replenish 10 miles of beaches with fresh sand and comes with a price tag of $32 million.

According to Orrin Pilkey, a geology professor at Duke University specializing in beaches and barrier islands, the Corps, the government agency responsible for managing large coastal areas, often asserts that they are “saving” the beach from erosion. However, Pilkey disagrees with this claim and argues that the Corps’ efforts are not actually preventing the disappearance of the beach.

He told me that they are simply saving the investments of many people.

Recreating a washed-out beach is not only a costly endeavor but also a recurring one, especially in the current times when our elected officials frequently resort to involving the Army in such efforts.

According to an editorial on, local governments on the Treasure Coast have invested more than $100 million in beach-renourishment projects over the past five years.

Last month, the same paper highlighted the issue in a straightforward manner: “Each year, millions of dollars are spent on beach repairs, only to have them damaged once again by storms and erosion.”

After closely observing the frequency of these projects, I decided to consult with a number of experts to gain further insight. To my validation, all of them confirmed my observation.

Wayne Daltry, formerly the “smart growth” coordinator for Lee County, reminisces about a time when Florida beaches only needed to be re-sanded every decade or so. However, things have changed. In just three words, Daltry explains why this is no longer the case.

He told me that the futile and expensive sand rearrangement to replace the littoral drift has remained unchanged. The only difference now is that it has become even more costly due to the rise in sea levels.

Get ready for an “extraordinary” hurricane season that starts on Saturday, as experts predict a significant increase in the erosion of sand this summer.

A sandy Band-Aid

Anakin Skywalker, in his pre-Vader state in Attack of the Clones, expresses his disdain for sand, stating, “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere.” One can’t help but wonder if the Rebels had employed a sand bomb, they may have had a quicker victory over the Empire.

We Floridians have a deep affection for our sandy beaches, unlike Darth. As a state legislator once told me two decades ago, “Sand is just as essential to Florida as snow is to Colorado.”

Since 1922, engineers have been utilizing new sand to increase the size of beaches across the country. This practice started when Coney Island required some “enhancement,” similar to how certain aging Hollywood celebrities resort to plastic surgery to restore their youthful appearance.

According to the American Sand and Beach Preservation Association, over the span of 1922 to May 2018, a remarkable 818 miles of beaches have been restored. This impressive feat has required the use of over 1.5 billion cubic yards of material, with the total cost of these projects estimated at a staggering $6.1 billion.

Six years later, it’s safe to say that those numbers have significantly increased, particularly considering the frequent need for multiple renovations in certain locations.

According to historian Gary Mormino, author of “Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida,” the idea of investing in beach development was questionable a century ago and is even more perplexing in present times. In an email conversation, Mormino expressed his view that these projects are akin to providing billionaire sports moguls with new sports arenas.

If you guessed that the state with the most calls for federal taxpayer assistance to address its eroding beaches in the past decade was Florida, then you deserve top marks.

According to Nicole Elko, executive director of the sand and beach association, California holds the top spot for the century, primarily due to its efforts in the 1960s and 1970s. Florida closely follows as the second-ranked state.

It’s quite surprising to see how many Florida politicians, who claim to be fiscal conservatives, suddenly become advocates for extravagant, government-funded initiatives when it comes to beach renourishment. They eagerly call for Uncle Sam to bring in that overflowing dump truck of funds!

According to Emma Haydocy of the environmental group Surfrider Foundation, over 50% of Florida’s 825 miles of beaches are currently categorized as “critically eroded,” making them eligible for renourishment.

Beach renourishment, according to her, is nothing more than a temporary fix for eroding coastlines.

According to Haydocy, as the sea level rises due to climate change, the occurrence of applying temporary solutions becomes more frequent and costly. She emphasized that even smaller storms can cause more damage now due to the increased height of the sea.

When Hurricane Nicole hit Florida’s East Coast in 2022, it was only categorized as a Category 1 storm. I personally know many long-time Floridians who viewed a Category 1 hurricane as a reason to celebrate with a hurricane party.

According to the National Weather Service, this particular storm had a significant impact due to its timing during high tide. As a result, it resulted in a devastating storm surge and coastal flooding along the east central Florida coast.

According to Haydocy, the projects that had sand placed beforehand were completely undone within a few hours.

Butts on the beach

If you’re looking to explore the topic of beach renourishment, the perfect resource to reach out to would be the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association.

The association, which was established in 1926, advocates for the 470 communities across the country that rely on renourishment projects to ensure the survival of their beaches. Without beaches, there would be no tourists visiting these areas.

Elko, who holds a Ph.D. in geology from the University of South Florida and worked as the coastal coordinator for Pinellas County, emphasizes the importance of having people visit these communities to support their sustainability.

I was surprised to hear that Florida no longer obtains all its sand for beach rebuilding from offshore dredging.

Most Florida beaches are currently undergoing a process of reconstruction, utilizing sand sourced from the historic dunes found along the Lake Wales Ridge, a prominent geological feature spanning the length of the state.

According to the official website of the state, the ridge is renowned for hosting a significant number of rare plants and animals in the entire United States. However, it is disheartening to learn that a substantial portion, approximately 85%, of the original dry uplands habitat on the Lake Wales Ridge has been lost due to agricultural and developmental activities. Despite this alarming fact, it seems that the extraction of the remaining resources for the sole purpose of shoreline expansion is not being considered as a potential concern by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

According to Elko, climate change and sea level rise are causing significant damage to recently restored beaches, disrupting the sandy shores before beachgoers can even enjoy them.

She also concurred with Haydocy’s assessment that a significant issue lies with certain buildings situated along the coastlines. Some of these structures have been constructed in areas that render them highly susceptible to the effects of rising sea levels. Consequently, they require frequent rescue and preservation efforts, akin to the frequency with which Mary Jane Watson finds herself in peril in a Spider-Man film.

However, she did not anticipate any modifications to our policy of taking whatever actions are required to preserve those locations, regardless of how imprudent they may appear.

She expressed her belief that in the coming decade, we will continue to carry out our current activities.

But have you ever wondered what would occur if we allowed some of these places to succumb to the vast depths of the ocean?

Dollars down the drain

This approach is commonly referred to as “managed retreat.” It involves us as a community acknowledging our past mistakes in building and making the decision to step back from them. By doing so, we can redirect our resources towards more deserving endeavors, ultimately saving millions of tax dollars.

I first came across Pilkey, a Duke scientist, over 20 years ago, discussing the idea of managed retreat. Recently, he published a book called “Retreat from a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change” on this very topic.

In the 1990s, the notion of allowing certain buildings to be submerged in the sea seemed absurd. When Pilkey and other geologists initially proposed this idea, they faced significant opposition and received hate mail.

In certain regions, it has now become a widely acknowledged practice. Back in 2010, a devastating storm named Xynthia struck the French Atlantic coast, resulting in the tragic loss of 47 lives due to severe flooding. In response, France made the decision to purchase the remaining houses at their pre-flood prices and subsequently demolish them.

Then-President Nicolas Sarkozy stated that people would not be allowed to return to homes located in areas with life-threatening risks.

In Florida, we’ve taken a rather unique approach. Let’s just say it’s been different.

The governor and Legislature have not only removed the phrase “climate change” from various sections of state law, but they have also prohibited local governments from preventing individuals from rebuilding in the same location where their homes and businesses were destroyed in previous storms.

Florida’s only managed retreat seems to be a retreat from common sense.

Our so-called “fiscal conservatives” will persist in using our tax money to reconstruct beaches that are bound to be eroded by the next storm, essentially wasting our hard-earned dollars.

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