At beaches, sand is running out

Erosion of America's coasts accelerates as man fights a sea rise of two feet a century

Americans in great numbers are heading to beaches this summer to enjoy the sun, the surf, and the sand. But when they arrive, many are asking a common question: Where's the beach?

Erosion, coastal overdevelopment, and misguided conservation efforts are taking a heavy toll on the nation's shoreline.

For generations, the United States has been waging a multibillion-dollar war against the forces of wind and tide. But the wind and the waves are winning.

The result: Coastal communities from Massachusetts to Texas to California are facing a shortage of sand. Their beaches are literally washing away.

"Development is destroying America's beaches," says Jacqueline Savitz, executive director of the conservation group Coast Alliance in Washington.

At the heart of the issue, experts say, is a fundamental misperception about beach erosion and the nature of beaches. Sandy coastlines are highly dynamic. Unaltered by man, they exist in perfect balance, eroding in some places while accreting in others. But when man attempts to hold the beach in a particular location, the effort inevitably backfires and erosion rates often accelerate.

"Everything that people are doing is useless, prohibitively expensive, or is making the situation worse," says Cornelia Dean, Science Editor of The New York Times and author of a new book, "Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches."

"Basically what the beach wants to do is move inland. If we let the beach do that, the beach would be preserved," Ms. Dean says. "But we build buildings very close to the edge of the sea, and when they are threatened we build sea walls or groins or revetments, and that dooms the beach."

To ecologists, the problem is a failure to understand that for beaches to survive, they must be free to move and evolve.

To property owners in coastal areas, the problem is that they've built a permanent structure on a temporary landscape. When the landscape begins to change and their investment is imperiled, property owners urge the government to wage what amounts to an unwinnable war against natural processes as old as the earth.

The stakes in the war are rising ever higher as oceanfront tracts continue to be converted at record pace from idyllic sand dunes into paved parking lots, luxury homes, high-rise condominiums, and seaside businesses.

Heavy price to pay

It seems in the 1990s everyone wants that exclusive ocean view, but few realize the potential costs in lives, money, and property. And the ultimate cost of such coastal development, experts say, is the beach itself.

"Coastal areas are developing two to three times faster than the rest of the country. What we have going on here is a migration of people to the coast," says Steve Leatherman, director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami.

"At the same time, the beaches are eroding and the ocean is headed toward us," he adds. "That is a classic definition of a collision course."

On one side are investments in homes and businesses worth $3.1 billion on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts alone. Most are highly vulnerable to storms and rising water.

On the other side, estimates are that more than 80 percent of US beaches are eroding, some at rates as high as five feet a year. In addition, scientific studies predict that ocean levels will rise from one to two feet in the next 50 to 100 years. And geologists say the entire US east coast is slowly sinking, adding to the prospect of extensive coastal flooding in the not-too-distant future.

Throughout the history of mankind, the most natural and effective buffer between rising seawater and inhabited areas has been a beach. Barrier islands, in particular, can be invaluable in protecting mainland communities from storms.

But in this century - particularly the past 50 years - barrier islands have also become popular places to live. The resulting development has undermined the beaches' protective function.

In New Jersey, for example, the popular Jersey shore is riddled with jetties, groins, and sea walls. All were constructed to hold the beach at a fixed location. The massive, costly structures helped some beaches retain sand, but they did it at the expense of other beaches nearby.

The bottom line in New Jersey is that the state and all federal taxpayers will soon be shelling out $9 billion to pump sand from offshore areas onto 127 miles of sand-starved beaches.

"We call it sand-pumping money," says Ms. Savitz. "It is really like throwing money into the ocean."

Experts acknowledge that one big storm could send all that expensive sand back out to sea.

But so-called beach nourishment projects are under way all along the coast because they are seen as the only effective way to keep a developed beach where property owners want it and need it. It enables seaside communities to fight a kind of holding action against the approaching surf.

Success story

The bigger the beachfront development, the more the economics swing in favor of beach nourishment.

One of the most successful beach nourishment projects was undertaken at the southern end of Miami Beach in the late 1970s.

The area was widely perceived as a seaside slum. But the new, wide beach and a corps of pioneering developers helped transform the depressed neighborhood into something special.

Today, South Beach is an international mecca and one of the hottest real-estate markets in the world. "If it hadn't been for beach nourishment, South Beach wouldn't be what it is today," Mr. Leatherman says.

Unlike most replenishment projects, the sand on South Beach stayed put for close to 20 years. But the ocean never quits. A new sand replenishment project is just getting under way at South Beach. The project calls for 145,000 cubic yards of sand from an offshore sandbar to be pumped to a 1,500-foot stretch of beach.

It isn't a panacea, experts say. But it may be the best option for places like Miami Beach, where the potential damage from beach erosion could affect more than just the ability to sunbathe in relative privacy.

"If the beach is gone or ruined, you don't have a world-class resort anymore," says Leatherman.

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