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South Florida marine life faces peril with ‘the wrong’ beach

March 23 2007 | Coastal Preservation,
by Chad Nelsen

Miami Herald
Posted on Wed, Mar. 21, 2007

BY CURTIS MORGAN

To survive constant assault from winds, waves and tides, beach sand has to be akin to Goldliock's porridge -- just right.

But it's been wrong too often in Florida's beach-building program, environmentalists and other critics contend. Now, they fear the pressure of South Florida's sand shortage could only worsen water quality problems that harm marine life, from tiny burrowing beach crabs to centuries-old corals.

''It's a simple fact that most of the offshore sand is not very durable in the beach zone,'' said Harold Wanless, chair of geological science at the University of Miami who has studied renourishment for years.

Grains too small float off to settle as silt on reefs Too big, they roll away with waves instead of sticking around. Too soft, they mush into mud. Too hard, they are tough on nesting turtles and human feet.

Since the 1970s, when regular renourishment efforts started, several studies have documented damage to corals, sponges and fish, including off Miami-Dade and Broward -- typically from water clouded by dredge scoops or from rebuilt beaches oozing what Wanless described as a ``time release of fine grain sand.''

Nesting turtles can turn away from bad rebuilds and burrowing mole crabs, known as ''sand fleas'' to anglers who dig them for bait, can be buried altogether.

''If you put the wrong sand down, the things that live in the beach just die,'' said Terry Gibson, an assistant editor with Florida Sportsman magazine who wrote a 2005 investigative series critical of dredging.

He has seen it happen twice within the last few years alone. First, inland sand poured on a stretch of St. Lucie County beach proved so cement-like that thousands of tons had to be scraped up and trucked away. Another job at Phipps Ocean Park in Palm Beach caked a popular snorkeling reef in suffocating silt, he said.

Regulators, engineering and dredging firms and the influential Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association, which lobbies for beach funds for counties, insist the widespread ripple effects of the past have been sharply reduced with better sand standards and reef monitoring.

''Clearly, there is no argument there are short-term impacts,'' said Debbie Flack, government affairs director for the association. ``Yes, we've gotten better. No, it's not perfect. We still need to work at it.''

Flack points out that the St. Lucie debacle often cited by critics wasn't a beach widening but an emergency dune repair -- and the state did order the bad sand removed. But she acknowledged environmental oversight suffered during the unprecedented sand-pumping of the last two years to repair the storm-battered coast.

''We rushed projects and as sand sources become more limited, we may be accepting sand quality that isn't acceptable,'' she said. ``Those are issues we need to study and make better.''

With the Legislature declaring beach building in the public interest, regulators must strike a ''delicate balance'' between the environmental and economic considerations, said Paden Woodruff, who supervises beach management for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

''You have to balance the cost of not protecting these areas and the billions of dollars of private property, public property and public infrastructure that is protected by the shoreline,'' he said. ``The economics will always be there.''

But Gibson and T.J. Marshall of the South Florida chapter of The Surfrider Foundation, a group that monitors beach projects, said the program has only encouraged decades of coastal building that has put more people and property at risk.

Both advocate sharply increased ''bypassing'' efforts, meaning mining of sand that builds naturally in some spots for use in erosion hot spots -- a step embraced by regulators.

Marshall said the state has dredged itself into an unsustainable and expensive hole of creating unnaturally wide beaches that begin to erode as soon as they're completed.

''They want to have these beaches that are two football fields wide and those beaches don't exist in Florida,'' Marshall said. ``A natural beach is only 30 to 40 yards wide at maximum.''

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