Editorial: We must do more to address coastline’s distressed beaches


Beach replenishment is kind of dumb. You pump many tons of sand onto a stretch of shoreline, and in a few years you do it all over again. It disrupts the environment. Surfers hate it. It’s expensive, and getting more so.

And with sea level rise, this cycle of erosion and replenishment spins faster and faster.

But what’s the alternative? Until someone develops a better answer, replenishment is the best course we’ve got to preserve our beaches.

For the beach is essential not only to Palm Beach County’s economy — think tourists, fishing, luxury residences — but also to our region’s very identity. Not for nothing does “beach” appear in our county’s name, and in the names of 12 of the county’s municipalities.

Last week we learned that the county has asked the state for about $7.6 million to pay for restoration projects at what have been labeled critically eroded beaches – dwindled sections of shoreline located northward of Juno Inlet and as far south as Ocean Ridge. If the state approves the money, the county would match it with about $5.2 million and roughly $2.4 million more provided by affected coastal cities.

It’s one more reminder of the extraordinary pressures being placed upon Florida from sea-level rise, the gnawing threat to our region that demands far more discussion and action than we’re used to seeing. It’s to that end that the editorial pages of The Palm Beach Post, the Miami Herald and the Sun Sentinel have joined together, with reporting help from WLRN Public Radio, in an unprecedented collaboration, The Invading Sea, to make plain the realities and options before us.

Of Florida’s 825 miles of sandy beaches, 421 have been designated “critically eroded” by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Palm Beach County has 33.6 miles of those critically eroded beaches, more than any other county but Brevard. On a DEP map, the county’s critically eroded coast looks like one long red line, broken by a few small interruptions.

Many of these diminished beaches have been restored through the placement of sand and dunes material, the DEP said in a report last year, but they retain the designation to qualify for future state funding, long-term maintenance and monitoring.

Because beach restoration is a repetitive activity. The biggest project for which Palm Beach County now seeks funding would install sand and groins (rock piles meant to keep sand in place) to rebuild the beach from South Palm Beach to Lantana Municipal Beach. As the Post’s Alexandra Seltzer reports, there have been six — count ‘em — previous dune restoration projects on the same stretch since 2003.

Another project, on Singer Island, would be the ninth dune restoration there since 2008. Still another, at Coral Cove Park, north of Jupiter Inlet, would follow previous restorations in 1989, 1993, 2005 and 2013.

According to scientists, there is very little in the way of long-term remedies. Seawalls? They may save oceanside buildings, but they’ll kill the beach on the wall’s water-facing side. Groins? They’ll hold the sand at one beach but, by interrupting the usual flow of sediment, starve another downstream.

Thus, we replenish … watch the beach disappear … and replenish again.

Future generations may laugh at our folly in doing this so often — and spending so much to do it.

A plan laid out by Palm Beach County foresees spending $1.2 billion over 30 years (most from federal and state coffers). For other counties the bill could be much higher — Miami-Dade can’t dredge for nearby sand, like we do, because the offshore continental shelf is too narrow there; they’re looking to import sand from The Bahamas, only it would require a change in federal law.

We have created this dilemma for ourselves, of course, allowing development too near the water’s edge. And now comes climate change, raising the sea level by a predicted 2 feet by 2060; compounding the power of hurricanes to punish shorelines.

Our government and business leaders have to address these threats; and they have to address them now. It’s not just cutting carbon emissions to slow the planet’s warming and polar icecaps’ melting. It’s building resilience to ensure our region’s livability for as long as possible.

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Because eventually, nature will win. And most likely, we’ll be forced into some kind of retreat. Many will have to give up the low ground to the risen sea.

But until that dire day, our deepest inclination is to do all we can to preserve our beaches — for the moments of fun and peace they bring, for the wildlife they sustain, for the tourism dollars they draw. Beach replenishment is the maintenance bill we can’t avoid.



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