Article published Jun 23, 2006 in SHT
Eroded beaches reflect years of human interference with nature
A mnemonic device helps one remember something. The image of a sandy pickle is easy to remember, but Sarasota's sandy pickle is something I sometimes wish I could forget. I was reminded of the sandy pickle when I read that Sarasota County commissioners have been contemplating costs of $20 million to nourish four miles of beach on Manasota Key. That's $5 million a mile. Ignoring that final 280 feet in each mile, that's a pricey thousand dollars a foot. But at those prices, with more than 30 miles of Gulf shoreline in Sarasota County, if we ever had to renourish all our beaches every five years, we'd be spending as much as $30 million a year.
What is sad is not the many millions it will cost us to maintain some semblance of beaches around here. The sad part is that they were once free. By "free," I mean it didn't cost us anything and, by "they," I mean perpetual walkable sandy beaches.
Beach erosion is only a problem where human structures are at risk.
Hurricane Charley pummeled Cayo Costa, but no one is calculating how much sand will need to be pumped. The beach changed, but there is still beach. But once we start defending buildings, then the sandy walkable beach can get lost in the fray -- replaced by sea walls or rocks or whatever the current structure-protecting fad is. We've taken what was once a free service, beaches, and increasingly made them into something we have to pay for. Greed, arrogance and ignorance are all part of the story.
A hundred years ago almost no one lived on our barrier islands. Remote, buggy, with few services and no good ways to weather hurricanes, the islands moved in response to natural forces. Probably no one gave long-term consequences much thought when beachfront development started in earnest.
No one was thinking about how much barrier islands squirm around. No one was thinking about rising sea levels. No one was thinking about possibly needing to spend as much as $1 million every 12 days to move sand around. No one was thinking about how efforts to stabilize the shore can increase erosion. No one was thinking about the sea turtles.
But it is not that no one was thinking. They were thinking about how great it would be to live "right on the beach." Thinking about how clueless their predecessors had been for not seeing the incredible opportunities. Thinking about how to get roads and services out there. And thinking about how much money they could make. All this thinking led to decades of decisions -- by investors, former commissioners and engineers -- that enabled people to derail many of the natural processes that had kept the Gulf shoreline sandy. And now, if we want sandy beaches, we are going to have to pay for them.Can Sarasota County afford $30 million a year? Absolutely. That's not so much when the taxable value of the county is closing in on $60 billion. But there are two wrinkles. The first is that beach nourishing is addictive behavior -- once you start it is very difficult to stop. Eventually it will become financially unsustainable -- not because we don't have the money but because of the second reason: the costs in lost opportunity.
Simply put, Sarasota County can afford anything it wants, but it can't afford everything it wants. Dollars spent thwarting or replicating natural processes on the beaches are dollars that can't be spent on other priorities.
The county's coastal agenda, for instance, is not limited to beach issues. Storm water entering bays needs treatment, red tide is capturing more attention and funds, declining fisheries and habitat need attention, recreational access is vanishing, and, despite common sense, opening Midnight Pass remains on the docket.
There are no easy answers to the sandy pickle. That's why it's a pickle. As a recent article stated: Real estate interests and politicians refuse to consider any retreat, which would be the work-with-the-natural-system response. But working against nature ultimately has three costs -- an environmental cost, a social cost and those pesky financial costs. Think Katrina and levees. We're about to find out how much our once-free beaches might end up costing us.
Community leader and activist Jono Miller is a director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College of Florida in Sarasota.