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Florida's Vanishing Beaches: The fight against coastal erosion

More than half of Florida beaches surveyed are critically eroded: FDEP
Sunset Beach in Pinellas County
Posted at 5:43 AM, Jul 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-18 18:40:47-04

PINELLAS COUNTY — According to a June report by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, more than half of the 825 miles of coastline they surveyed are critically eroded.

Earlier this year, you might remember seeing the unbelievable video of a home collapsing into the Atlantic Ocean in the Outer Banks. The house on a beach in Rodanthe is one of three that succumbed to erosion.

Our national partner Newsy investigated how bad the problem is in North Carolina. We teamed up with them and learned that beaches on the West Coast of Florida have similar, if not worse, erosion as Rodanthe.

PASS-A-GRILLE BEACH

Known for soothing waves, great fishing, and beautiful dunes, Pass-a-Grille Beach, last renourished in 2014, is considered critically eroded.

"In this area in Pass-a-Grille, we've lost about 140,000 cubic yards since the last renourishment project," Dr. John Bishop, Coastal Management Coordinator for Pinellas County, told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska.

To put how much sand that is into perspective. A cubic yard is 3-feet-by-3-feet-by-3-feet, and a dump truck carries 12 cubic yards. So it would take 11,666 dump trucks full of sand to replace it.

"Are we seeing anything similar to what is happening in the Carolinas with our coastal erosion?" Paluska asked.

"I wouldn't say to that extent," Bishop said. "There are structures that are getting very close to the water. There's a couple in Sunset Beach and Treasure Island where there's like a little bit of a patio sticking out to the dune, but not to the extent where we're talking about, you know, homes falling into the Gulf."

"We're not at that point yet?

"No," Bishop responded. "We're not at that point."

Passage Key, Pass-a-Grille, Sunset Beach, Treasure Island, and Honeymoon Island are all hotspots that have similar erosion as the Outer Banks. The difference is no homes are currently in danger of getting swept out to sea.

Bishop said as long as the sand renourishment projects continue, he doesn't see Florida losing its beaches.

"Are we going to have to adapt to beach erosion? Or is Florida just going to have to keep putting the sand back in?" Paluska asked.

"I think it's probably going to have to be a combination over time," Bishop said. "But for now, we've been able to sort of maintain our current level with just replacing sand. So it's going to largely be dependent on where sea level is and the quantity of sand sources available to be used."

HURRICANES AND TROPICAL STORMS

During Tropical Storm Eta, some parts of Sunset Beach lost 15 feet of dunes.

Eta was only a tropical storm, and the damage was substantial. However, we've all seen how destructive a major hurricane can be on our coasts. Mexico Beach was nearly wiped off the map when Hurricane Michael hit on Oct. 14, 2018. Wind speeds at landfall were clocked at 160 mph.

In September 2019, Hurricane Dorian sat over the Bahamas. The extremely powerful and deadly Category 5 Atlantic hurricane is one of the worst natural disasters in the island nation's recorded history.

It never made landfall in Florida but caused extensive flooding and beach erosion up and down the East Coast.

Waves battered St. Augustine Beach, causing severe beach erosion. Plans are in the works to restore the beach as soon as possible.

SEA LEVEL RISE

Sea level rise is another factor impacting the future of our beaches and coastal communities.

"Our climate models tell us that we expect it is going to increase by another foot in the next 30 years," Dr. Gary Mitchum, Associate Dean College of Marine Science USF, said. "When you add that foot onto a spring tide, then on to a relatively small storm that has a two or three-foot storm surge, all of a sudden, you've got six or eight feet (surge)."

Mitchum is an expert in sea level rise. Unfortunately, his data doesn't take into account beach erosion. But, he said the two often go hand in hand.

"If you have a storm if you have waves hit at high tide, they do more erosion," Mitchum said. "So the high tides reached deeper into the dunes."

Mitchum and his team at USF are part of a new study to calculate more localized data on sea level rise impacts.

The Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation is in its infancy. But, Mitchum hopes to have hard data in the next year. When it comes to climate models and sea level rise across Earth, Mitchum said there is no doubt seas are rising.

"We've already seen it. The data is incontrovertible," Mitchum said. "This is not just a bunch of computer models anymore. This is from observations that are backing up exactly what the models have predicted. We have the data to show that what the models have predicted should be happening by now; is happening."

EROSION REPORT

Released in June 2022, a study titled "Critically Eroded Beaches in Florida from the Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection Florida Department of Environmental Protection" found hundreds of miles of critically eroded beaches.

The report said, "This critical erosion report provides an inventory of Florida's erosion areas on the 825 miles of sandy beaches fronting the Atlantic Ocean, Straits of Florida, Gulf of Mexico, and the roughly 66 coastal barrier tidal inlets."

According to the report, out of those 825 miles, 426.3 miles are considered critically eroded.

Some areas of the state could face severe issues if erosion is not mitigated.

The report states, "a 4.7-mile segment along Kennedy Space Center (V365 – V390) is critically eroded, threatening manned spacecraft facilities, launch pads, Phillips Parkway, and buried infrastructure. Beach and dune restoration is being investigated."

In Hillsborough County, they found erosion on "one coastal island, Egmont Key, at the entrance to Tampa Bay. Most of the length of Egmont Key (1.6 miles) is critically eroded, threatening recreational interests and important cultural resources."

And data shows that "all of Manatee County is critically eroded (13.0 miles). Passage Key (0.3 mile) is a national wildlife refuge, which has been reduced to an intertidal shoal due to erosion that has threatened a major sea bird rookery."

Some highlights in Pinellas County show:

"The south end of Clearwater Beach Island is critically eroded, extending 0.5 miles along the north shore of Clearwater Pass. Private development is threatened in this area which is mostly armored with concrete bulkheads. Almost all of Sand Key, except for the north and south ends of the island, has been critically eroded. This critically eroded area (R56 – R115.4) extends 11.3 miles and has threatened development and recreational interests in the communities of Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores, Redington Shores, North Redington Beach, Redington Beach, and the north end of Madeira Beach. A federal beach restoration project, as well as concrete and wooden bulkheads, extend throughout this erosion area. All of Treasure Island (R126 – R143) is designated critically eroded. Development and recreational interests were threatened along this 3.5-mile barrier island, which is a federal beach restoration project. All of Long Key (R144 – R166) is designated critically eroded. Development and recreational interests were threatened along this 4.1-mile barrier island, which is a federal beach restoration project. At the north end of the island at Upham Beach, material from Blind Pass is used for nourishment, and a sand fill container groin field was constructed."

SOLUTIONS

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville is responsible for the renourishment projects and studying the impacts of sea level rise.

"Everybody is aware that sea rise, sea level rise is a fact of life, and it's not going to reverse itself in our lifetimes," David Ruderman, Public Affairs Specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville, said.

For Pass-a-Grille Beach, a renourishment is planned for 2023, a year early. Typically projects are every decade. Funds for the projects receive congressional approval. In addition, federal, state, and local authorities work together to survey and study erosion hot spots in their area.

"And then we go back periodically, and renourish that beach, to ensure that the shoreline remains intact, that the infrastructure is not at risk, that the economic base of the tourism, economy, and quality of life for people who live there or anywhere we're working to have this amazing life that folks can have in Florida," Ruderman said.

The Corps works on finding solutions to complicated problems. One new initiative is called Engineering With Nature.

"The Corps of Engineers has Engineering Research Development Center out in Mississippi that is working on these on future solutions, future better solutions," Ruderman said. "Our folks out there are modeling and studying and proposing engineering solutions that mimic nature. It's called nature and nature-based features, studying them to see how they can be incorporated into shore protection projects of the future."

Some of the projects are estimated to cost millions of dollars. For example, the beach renourishment for Pass-a-Grille carries a price tag of $6-$7 million.

"If we didn't do this, what would our beaches look like?" Paluska asked Bishop.

"They would continue to erode back. Pass-a-Grille would continue once it gets through this dune."

The projects also help keep ecosystems intact, so endangered sea turtles continue to have a place to lay eggs. And, there are also the tourists.

"Could you even imagine a Pinellas County without a beautiful beach?" Paluska asked.

"No. The tourists bring in billions of dollars every year, just to Pinellas County alone. So I think that more than pays for the few millions it takes to nourish the beach."

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