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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

In south Florida, sand is why the tourists come. For years, hotel owners along Miami Beach appealed for federal help in keeping the beaches from eroding . A six million dollar beach nourishment plan is now underway in south Florida after 2 years of legal wrangling. But now, how not to repeat damage to the fragile coral reefs that lie next to the source of new sand. Five of the 17 projects that rebuilt beaches in south Florida since the 70's damaged or destroyed coral reefs. New monitoring efforts appear to be paying off, but that isn't making the projects any less controversial. Alexis Muellner reports from Miami.


RUDOLPH: Sand is to South Florida what Old Faithful is to Yellowstone, Casinos to Las Vegas, and Disney to Orlando. It's why the tourists come. For years hotel owners along Miami Beach urgently appealed for Federal help to halt beach erosion. Now a $6 million beach nourishment plan is finally underway in South Florida, but only after 2 years of legal wrangling. At issue was how to protect the fragile coral reefs that lie next to the source of new sand. Five of the 17 projects that rebuilt beaches in South Florida since the 70s damaged or destroyed coral reefs. New monitoring efforts appear to be paying off, but that isn't making the projects any less controversial. Alexis Muellner reports from Miami.

(Mulling voices)

MUELLNER: It's dinner time for the 13-member crew of the Dodge Island, a 289-foot dredging barge.

(Silverware tumbles; voices continue)

MUELLNER: In the galley several crew members sit at yellow formica counters and dig into plates of beef ribs, occasionally glancing up at a TV sitcom.

(Mulling voices continue; fade to small motors whirring)

MUELLNER: After dinner the crew prepares to offload their cargo, enough sand to fill 200 dump trucks.

(Motors, clanking, sand tumbling)

MUELLNER: The sand is sucked off the boat through a pumping station and down a mile-long pipeline toward a heavily eroded section of Miami Beach.

(Radio voices)

MUELLNER: From the dimly-lit wheel house the ship's captain, Howard Hawrey, fiddles with some navigational equipment. At Hawrey's shoulder is a giant computer monitor. He turns some knobs and an image of the dredge appears on the screen.

HAWREY: We know exactly where our arms and our dredge-heads are going to be touching the bottom. Through different colors on the screen, we know exactly how deep the areas are and whether we've dug too much there already and we should stay away, or whether we've got plenty of material in that particular spot to keep digging it.

MUELLNER: There's a reason for this degree of high tech monitoring. Past sand dredging projects left longstanding environmental damage. In 1990, 25 acres of coral and countless other plants were buried in silt and sand. Two years earlier a dredge strayed, its 2 8-ton vacuum cleaner-like arms cutting a car-sized swath through a fragile reef. In 1994 legal challenges suspended all dredging. In order to resume operations, they have had to take greater precautions, including increasing the buffer between the dredge site and the reef, from 150 feet to 1500 feet. Now, every aspect of the project is scrutinized, something Captain Hawrey isn't entirely comfortable with.

HAWREY: It's a shame that I've got all these organizations looking over my shoulder all the time. And it's a little overkill with some of the inspections I think and stuff going on. But I -- it's for everybody's best interests.

(Music on the beach, surf)

MUELLNER: It's mid-morning at Miami Beach's famed Fontainbleau Hotel. The sunbathers lolling here probably don't know it, but their beach is widened overnight, in some places not too far down the shoreline. The effort has quadrupled the width of the beach, restoring more than 300 feet of sand. So far, according to county environmental officials, the new sand is coming without harm to the reefs.

FLYNN: Our monitoring reports have come in very favorable so far. In fact, some of those sediment levels that we're seeing closest to where the dredging is occurring are actually within the range of what you would get during a natural storm event. So right now we're real happy with the way things are going.

MUELLNER: Brian Flynn is in charge of the county's beach restoration program. He says his divers are out on the reefs checking sediment buildup daily.

(Chains shifting)

FLYNN: What we have been able to do is in cases where we have started to notice a localized buildup in, say, one particular section of the reef adjacent to where the dredging is occurring, is we're having periodic meetings with the dredging contractor and we're working together to shift the operations or modify them in such a way so that those areas are given a little bit of a break, and the sediment can move off naturally.

MUELLNER: Despite close monitoring and improved environmental impact statements, environmentalists say the coral reefs are still threatened and the projects should be stopped for good. Washington, DC, attorney Eric Litsenstein represented environmentalists and the small coastal town of Golden Beach in its 1994 Federal lawsuit, which delayed dredging for 2 years and won greater scrutiny for the project.

LITSENSTEIN: This is an inherently risky operation. They're once again smack up against coral reefs. And even if they do everything absolutely right, there are still invariably going to be sedimentation impacts on those reefs. The question is how severe they'll be.

MUELLNER: But Dade County officials like Brian Flynn say there are enough protections in place, and they'll stop the project if necessary. Flynn says beaches are critical to South Florida's tourism. He says he must strike a balance between the threat to the reefs and the need to protect the beaches.

FLYNN: In terms of the justification for them, it's really a piece of infrastructure, both in terms of protecting our tourism industry by providing a place for tourists to come, and also by providing a storm buffer for all of the physical infrastructure that we have on the shorelines here. All the hotels, all of the businesses. In terms of does it wash away? Yeah, it does wash away. Periodically we have to come back and we have to place additional sand here, but that's where the analogy of infrastructure comes in. You don't pave a road or build a highway on the assumption that you're never going to need to do maintenance work on it.

CUENCA: Our beaches never needed to be renourished even before they started renourishing north and south of us.

MUELLNER: Judy Cuenca is the Mayor of Golden Beach, the town that opposed the dredging.

CUENCA: We don't build that close to the erosion control line, which is one of the escalating factors in beach erosion. We don't have natural erosion. And the removal of that sand, even if they didn't hurt the reefs, is a concern.

MUELLNER: Mayor Cuenca says many of the town's 900 residents worry that the removal of the sand will increase wave action and threaten their beach.

CUENCA: We were told that the shoreline of Golden Beach was in jeopardy. That living coral reefs that were many, many, many years old could be destroyed and killed permanently. That's a concern for everyone. The fact that it sits due east of Golden Beach means we have an immediate concern. But for the rest of the world it's a concern. For the rest of the east coast of Florida it's a concern.

MUELLNER: That concern continues for Mayor Cuenca, even though the current project is winding down. She claims data used to convince a Federal judge to eventually allow the dredging operation to resume was flawed. Whether that's true, and whether the reefs have been damaged by the dredging, may take years to gauge. Meanwhile, Dade County plans to move ahead with other beach restoration projects. For Living on Earth, I'm Alexis Muellner in Miami.



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