It’s your money and not just sand eroding away on the shore.

By J. Siry

The seashore, since colonial times, has belonged to all citizens. Yet there are few other more contested grounds on earth where the clash of interests make for some of the costliest and ecologically damaging decisions than on this densly settled and shrinking margin between the sea and the land. There is no older heritage for Americans than our access  to the shores, where the tides ebb and flood. Beaches--that are so definitive of Florida's seashores--are the state’s property, held in trust for all people. Called sovereign lands, these tidally submerged shorelines are owned by no one, but used by anyone to fish, hunt or enjoy the wild outdoors.

Because the sea is forever changing, long-shore currents sweep sand along the coast. Storms eat away at beaches and move the dunes from one place depending on the prevailing winds, storms and surf. The world’s barrier islands are not stable, and Florida’s are no exception. Sand moves, dunes and their tenacious vegetation protect the land from erosion, and there is no cheap or easy way to anchor a moving island.

beach dredgingThat has not stopped the Army Corps of Engineers, at the behest of upland property owners and state legislatures, to replace sand that inevitably moves away from where it was replenished. Beach sand will erode away due to storms; indeed as sea level is rising, the entire island will eventually shift ever closer to the mainland.

A good example of private property owners who want the public to pay for beaches in what we call, coastal high-hazard areas, characterizes the current debate over putting sand back on beachesFlorida’s beaches. Shorebirds and female marine turtles nest on shifting beaches where the dunes and sea --in an uneven standoff-- sit face to face. Protecting investments along moving beaches may be a public virtue, may even be a commendable use of taxes, but is another example of private property owners looking for a government bail out when they encounter a high risk situation.

So what is this debate about over moving submerged sand onto a beach, or digging a deep hole in a channel to let boat owners pass, unobstructed to the ocean from our many bays? Certainly the appropriate use of tax revenues is in question. Another matter is who pays for natural changes in a beach or a shoreline? In what proportion should we pay for keeping nature from taking the course of least resistance?

Every year, since the 1960s, beach replenishment, as it is called, occurs due to storms moving sand to“ less desirable” places along the shore. Taxpayers fund about $100 million annually to restock sand on Atlantic Coast beaches. From 1996 to 1998 approximately $2.5 billion was spent to replenish 382 eroded beaches. A study by Pilkey and Trembanis concluded that subsequent need for more sand increased after these 1,305 “nourishment episodes”  during the period they analyzed. The economic cost is $5.08 (1999 dollars) for every cubic yard of sand ($6.49 on the Gulf Coast) placed back on a beach. In five to seven years it washes away. Additionally, the costs to turtles and shorebirds made homeless during the process are inestimable. We may all want beaches but we are also unwilling to pay for them.

519 words

test of conservation and development



Contents of Carson's 1955 book.

overview of The Edge of the Sea.


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