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Bottom Line in the Sand

By Julie Hauserman
Reprinted from the St. Petersburg Times
January 28, 2007

There is no doubt Miami Beach's precious waterfront will be shored up forever. The question is, whose sand will it be? Maybe the Bahamas'?

Every day, pop stars, fashion models and tourists come from around the world to see and be seen on the posh sands of Miami Beach, dropping dollars in their wake.

But the sand is literally shifting beneath the parade of designer sandals, and it's unnerving tourism boosters. Parts of Miami Beach are washing away, and Miami-Dade County is running out of options to fix its shrinking shore.

Sand washes away - it's the law of nature. For decades, Miami Beach has been propping up paradise by dredging up sand from the offshore ocean bottom. Like cosmetic surgeons injecting collagen to plump thin lips, they pump the sand onshore and make a wider, prettier beach for the starlets to stroll upon. The beach needs a touch-up every few years, and the dredges roar back to life, sucking the bottom to fill in the top.

Now, Miami Beach has a problem: The dredging game appears to be over. Miami Beach has run out of suitable offshore sand. As sand will do, it erodes off the beach and drifts gradually southward, spreading into the sensitive reefs off Florida's southern coast. The dredges can't pump it out without trashing a reef system that's one of a kind.

"It's kind of like fossil fuels, you know? When you use it all up, what's going to happen? Well, that's what's happening in Miami Beach," said T.J. Marshall, vice chair of the South Florida Chapter of Surfrider, an environmental group.

To save their cash-cow enclave, Miami-Dade County environmental officials have embarked on a strange odyssey to find pretty sand for sale. Their reigning solution now is to try to import it from some of the world's most beautiful islands: The Bahamas.

If Miami-Dade gets its way, you'll be able to wiggle your toes in Bahamian sand without ever leaving Florida, but so far Bahamian officials have done nothing to encourage those hopes.

The Miami Beach we have today is a man-made concoction. Carl Fisher, a rich Indiana snowbird, visited the bug-infested barrier island in 1913 and saw dollar signs. Back then, beachgoers boarded ferries from Miami, then crossed a wooden pier over mucky undergrowth to get to the beach. They could rent bathing suits for a quarter.

Fisher, a road builder who thought natural Florida was just a giant mud bog for bulldozers to play on, brought in dredges and filled the native mangrove swamps. He scooped up soft Biscayne Bay bottom to create the manicured fantasy destination that's now home to the rich and famous: Hulk Hogan, the Bee Gees, Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Puff Daddy and Shaquille O'Neal, to name a few. Today, the high-rise-studded Miami Beach is home to more than 90,000 people. You can't rent a bathing suit here anymore, but you can cut a multimillion dollar movie deal over a plate of frijoles and plantains, salsa on the side, swirling palm-frond fans above.

Fisher was one of a long line of men who come to Florida, fall in love with the place, and promptly begin turning it into something else.

Miami Beach's sand is designer sand, and not just any substitute will do. It has to be the right sort of sand for sea turtles to nest in. It has to have a certain grain size and color to satisfy state rules. It has to allow little sand creatures to live unmolested in their tiny universes. Finding - and getting - compatible sand has turned out to be a giant headache.

'Sand robbers'?

Last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that there was a nice supply of compatible sand for Miami Beach. It was piled underwater on the St. Lucie County Shoal, about 120 miles up the Atlantic coast. The shoal that Miami Beach wanted to suck up and ship south, it so happens, protects a barrier island that's home to the St. Lucie nuclear power plant. Residents there loudly insisted they could use all the protection they could get for the nuke plant, especially during a hurricane. And besides - Miami Beach had no right to "their" sand. Call it the first salvo in the sand wars.

"Sand Robbers Show No Mercy" sniped a headline on an editorial from the Port St. Lucie News, which accused Miami Beach of a "plunder-and-loot mentality."

It might have been a low-key turf war except St. Lucie has a political advantage: The man who represents St. Lucie County in the state house is Ken Pruitt, now president of the Florida Senate. He's a Tallahassee heavyweight who controls the state budget. Pruitt aired television commercials, starring him personally, to make Miami back off.

"We will fight to the death to make sure you don't take one grain of sand," declared Pruitt, a neo-environmentalist who started life as a well driller back when developers started draining wetlands and building subdivisions to fill up the wilds of St. Lucie County. The corps abandoned the plan and skulked off to write reports.

Desperate, Miami-Dade's hired sand hunters turned inland, where they found a pocket of Florida prehistory and promptly appropriated it to shore up Carl Fisher's man-made paradise.

Now, the county is spending millions to truck prehistoric sand from a commercial mine in Glades County, south of the Lake Wales Ridge. The sand comes from the Miocene and Pliocene periods, 4- to 8- million years ago when mastodons and mammoths stomped across the Florida peninsula. That part of Florida was beachfront back when today's swanky coastal towns, including Miami, were under water.

Trucks pile this ancient sand along Miami Beach and then rumble past beachfront hotels and pricey Atlantic-view homes to spread it out. The sand has to be transferred three times, making it an expensive logistical pain. And the prehistoric stuff still suffers from that basic problem that comes with all sand - it won't stay where you put it for very long.

"The reality of it is Miami Beach isn't going anywhere. It's going to be maintained almost at any cost," said Brian Flynn, special projects administrator for Miami-Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management.

Sand sources and shortages

"The sand shortage is a Dade County issue now, but Broward County is one project away from running out of sand," Flynn said. "In the foreseeable future, it's a regional issue. The long-term solution is we have to look at nondomestic sand sources."

Don't worry: The sand shortage won't be showing up in Tampa Bay any time soon. Experts say the offshore sand famine is confined to the state's east coast, and not the more placid and shallow gulf. One solution, in use at Hillsborough Inlet, recycles sand that gets caught by inlets, using special pipes and pumps called "sand bypass" to move the sand to places where the beach is eroding.

Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer said he isn't keen on importing foreign sand, but sees it as a stopgap until Miami-Dade finds better ways to hold onto the sand it has, possibly a modified sand bypass - or "back-pass" - gizmo at Miami's Government Cut inlet to pump sand south to north.

Seeking foreign soil

Flynn, of Miami-Dade's environmental department, said he's been contacted by other foreign governments who hear Miami-Dade wants to buy sand. He says he's heard from the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. But the Bahamas has the economic edge because it is closer, just 50 miles off Florida.

"There should be plenty of sand in the Bahamas," said state Rep. Luis Garcia, a Miami Beach Democrat. "To make it simple, we need that sand and we would like to have it here."

Would the Bahamas sell sand to Miami Beach? That's an open question. The Bahamian Consulate in Miami didn't return calls for this story.

Miami-Dade has another technical problem with the Bahamas sand solution: Right now, it's illegal to import foreign sand, unless you can prove that there are no suitable domestic sources. But a loophole appears to be on the way. The corps is now preparing a report that, most observers predict, will declare that Miami Beach has no economically feasible domestic sand sources.

Miami-Dade's Flynn is right. Miami Beach isn't going anywhere. The place is hotter than ever. Luxury condos sprout along the vanished dune line, billionaires trade up seven-bedroom mansions for 14-bedroom ones, European tourists crowd into Deco hotels and walk topless on the beach. They come for the white sand and blue waves.

Do you think any of them care, that behind the scenes, dump trucks crawl like ants from Florida's middle, carrying load after load of prehistoric beach? If that sand could hold up a mastodon, it ought to support a bejeweled flip-flop just fine.

And if the Bahamas won't sell sand to its American neighbor, there's always beach-filled Cuba, 112 miles offshore. You never know what the future might bring. And hey, stranger things have happened in Miami.

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