Holding the Line
FL Today - Jan 16, 2014

Brevard's beach renourishment has all the makings of biblical allegory: apocalyptic storms, rising floodwaters, relentless stretches of sand. In my last editorial, when I related the work of the hopper dredges to the parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, I was lambasted, harpooned and strung on a line by some brothers of mine in the surf community. Why? For my supposed support of the project!

Such is the problem with nuanced debates about government undertakings: it's nearly impossible to tell the wise men from the fools.

Fortunately, even a fool can report facts. $29 million worth of sand is currently being pumped onto Brevard County's beaches. The Federal government is footing the bill, not because they own the beach (technically, they do), but because the beachfront homeowners won a legal settlement which ruled the "avulsion"––or washing away of their back yards––had been caused by the Army Corps construction of Port Canaveral harbor and the jetty extension. So the Feds agreed to replenish the missing sand. That a wide beach was vital to the area's tourism economy was considered incidental.

3,000 years ago, our beach extended 100 miles out into the Atlantic. As water rises or falls, it quickens pace exponentially: look at a tide chart and this becomes evident. Barrier islands react to rising sea levels by rolling landward and mounding higher. An armored coastline stands in opposition to this natural migratory process. Survival of a beachside community thus becomes an act of building up––or of falling back.

The sand dredge is a visceral experience for surfers, who shush through the gray, ragged shoal sands on their way to the water, passing rusted pipes and mammoth dozers. Surfers are the sentinels of the beach, the first to notice its changing landscape, and it follows that they are some of the more vocal opponents of the dredge.

John Hearin, president of the Cocoa Beach chapter of Surfrider, argues that the Army Corps' sand, imported from the Canaveral Shoals, is not compatible with the beaches on the North Reach (the Cape through Cocoa Beach). He suggests an alternative borrow site, north of the jetty. Hearin would also like to see a re-evaluation of a permanent sand bypass facility at the port.

Ask a politician what he thinks about these ideas and he will say something to this effect: "Federal money is like a boulder rolling downhill. You can run from it, or you take the hit. What you can't do is change its direction."

The naturalist contingent touts the idea of managed retreat, along with buybacks of endangered land. One possibility to fund such a plan would be a county "custodianship fee" levied on properties east of A1A. Since 1972, the Army Corps has spent $64 million on sand maintenance in Brevard County. That amounts to roughly $330 per year for the typical Cocoa Beach beachfront home. A custodianship fee that matches––dollar for dollar––the allotted Federal funds would allow the Parks department to spend millions on buybacks and beautification of endangered land, installation of offshore forests, higher dunes, fish habitats, and rocky outcroppings. The fact that the beachfront fees would increase with the actual cost of imported sand would reflect the risks of living on the ocean side of the road.

Political impossibilities aside, the long-term fate of Brevard's barrier island will come down to this: will we raise our infrastructure, decade over decade, and affect a slow retreat, or will we go the way of the Outer Banks and become––by way of floods and catastrophes––recreational islands?

If we choose to shore up, is dredge sand enough? Likely it is a valuable component in a comprehensive shoreline protection strategy. Alone, it is as ephemeral as wind.

Soon enough, the ocean will breach the island. Not in one place, but in many. A flood tide will wash away these houses built on the sand. But again, we arrive at the problem of nuanced debate. Who is the fool? Who is the wise man?