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South Florida, Out of Beach, Wants to Buy Sand from the Bahamas

FORT PIERCE, FL - MAY 17:  A bulldozer is used to push sand from a discharge pipe into place during a federally funded shore protection project by Great Lakes Dredge and Dock on May 17, 2013 in Fort Pierce, Florida. As cities along the East Coast prepare for the start of the hurricane season, officials say the area encompasing Fort Pierce beach has been in dire need of repair since Hurricane Sandy last year made worse an area already suffering significantly from erosion. Some experts say shore restoration projects can help reduce the physical and economic damage from waves, storm surge, and the resulting coastal flooding in a hurricane.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
How the beach gets made. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Miami-Dade County lost 170,000 cubic yards of sand during Hurricane Irma. It’s the latest blow to South Florida beaches in perennial decline. Nearly half the state’s coast—411 miles’ worth of beach—is considered “critically eroded.” This is due in part to storms and underfunded beach maintenance, but really it’s a result of unchecked coastal development. Developer-friendly building codes have bunkered more than 100 miles of Florida shoreline behind jetties and seawalls, which hold back water but accelerate beach erosion. Fixed structures make natural coastline movement impossible.

For years, Florida beach managers have raced to find convenient sources of cheap, offshore sand. But the good stuff is running out. In Miami-Dade and Broward, for example, there’s virtually no sand left that’s both easily accessible for dredging and suitable for the beach. Currently, the protocol is to truck in the sand from inland mines, a procedure that can cost twice as much as dredging, and creates lots of traffic around the beach.

So Florida engineers and politicians want to do with sand what Americans do for other commodities that are expensive to buy domestically: buy it abroad. Unfortunately for them, that’s basically illegal thanks to a provision of a 1986 environmental law that all but bars federal spending on foreign sand. (A crucial chunk of beach restoration money comes from the Army Corps of Engineers.)

After Irma, Florida reps are pushing anew to scuttle that requirement, which would allow Florida counties to buy sand from the Bahamas. Sen. Marco Rubio actually introduced the SAND Act (Sand Acquisition, Nourishment, and Development) at the start of 2017, shortly after a different federal law permitted the study of sand imports. Every member of Congress from South Florida is a co-sponsor. They also have the support of Sandy Cay Development, a Bahamian company that mines sand and aragonite, a calcium carbonate that’s already dropped off at the Port of Miami to make cement and glass in the U.S.

In the other corner is the U.S. dredging industry, which enjoys a Jones Act–style guarantee that only U.S.-flagged ships may import sand from the islands. Last year, a dredging company executive told the Naples Daily News that it wouldn’t be fair to change the law when so many companies had been built around the current regulations. He also argued that the Florida coast had “plenty of sand.” (The entire Naples Daily News series on Florida beach erosion is worth reading.)

Even if you’re no fan of industry-specific protectionism, it’s worth considering how Florida got itself into its own mess by approving pell-mell coastal development on vulnerable beachfronts for generations. Letting the state buy its way out now rewards Florida for decades of short-sighted policy. Opening the tap on Bahamian sand would stanch the bleeding of Florida’s overdeveloped beaches like a Band-Aid on a head wound. Now that the world faces an extreme global sand shortage, maybe the possibility of sustainable reform lies in protectionist laws like this one, which forces Florida to deal with Florida’s problems.

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