Sun, Sep 16, 2007 - Page 9 News List

The search for sand is no day at the beach

Coastal communities are scrambling to act as sand proves a hard resource to hold on to

By Charles Passy  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

ILLUSTRATION NY: Lance Lu

It is arguably the best-known stretch of beach in the US, a playground populated by tightly toned models and sunburned tourists alike. But south Florida's shoreline is becoming known for something far more ominous: the sand shortage that is threatening to reshape all of the nation's coasts.

Blame it on global warming or just the vagaries of nature. Whatever the cause, the reality is forcing coastal communities to re-evaluate how they're going to keep their beaches wide and welcoming. In the process, they're looking at a combination of creative and practical solutions, from recycling glass bottles into sand to buying their beaches -- or, at least, their sand -- from the Bahamas or other sources.

What's at stake?

Nothing less than the economic survival of the shores, tourism and government officials have said.

"When people are expecting to have a beach experience and our beaches are eroded, it's unsettling to them and it's bad business for us," said Nikki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau in Florida.

South Florida is at the center of this sandstorm because it faces the dilemma that not only is it one of the country's most popular beach areas -- Grossman notes that more than 10 million visitors make their way annually to her locale -- it's also one of the most imperiled. There is, to put it simply, no longer a decent supply of offshore sand for the beach renourishment programs that have become as much a fact of life in this sun-worshiper's paradise as highway maintenance.

"We're basically out of sand at this point," said Brian Flynn, a special projects administrator at the Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management.

He was referring to the close-to-the-coastline areas that have been dredged in years past and that represent the simplest, most affordable option when it comes to sand replacement. Much of what's left at this point is in protected areas with reefs.

But if south Florida is an extreme example, it's not an isolated one. There's barely a beach community in the US that hasn't grappled with erosion at some point. This past summer alone has seen the issue arise everywhere from Galveston, Texas, where a proposed resort is prompting concerns about the effect it will have on beaches; to Long Island, New York, where beaches were eroded by an April northeaster.

And even communities that have replenished their beaches have learned a lesson or two: at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, a renourishment program had beachgoers complaining that there was too much gravel mixed with the sand.

As a local newspaper headline said: "Sand turns rocky horror."

Erosion is, of course, nothing new. By their very nature, beaches are temporal things, coastal experts explain. Sand will shift in different directions -- along the East Coast of the US, it typically moves southward -- building up beaches in one spot, shrinking them in another. Storms can accelerate the process.

As one prominent Florida newspaper columnist, Mike Thomas of the Orlando Sentinel, said: "The state is a submarine that submerges and surfaces with sea-level changes."

But in Florida and elsewhere, the real problem comes with development. When coastal communities emerge and expand, residents and visitors expect the beaches to remain intact.

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