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God Versus Man on the Beach

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

SINGER ISLAND, Fla. -- The Florida sun flashes off the row of oiled bodies, their owners largely unmindful of the politics being played on this strip of sand. The ocean waves are eating the beach. Residents of the luxury condo towers behind us fear losing the currently ideal sand-surf balance. They pressed Palm Beach County to stop the erosion by building a 1.2-mile series of breakwaters parallel to the shore. The county commissioners have just said "no."  

The battle of Singer Island's beach is but one skirmish in a broader war to stop natural forces from thinning sands along the East and Gulf coasts. It is a war without an exit strategy, for every engineering trick humankind tries either doesn't do much or makes the problem worse -- and always at great taxpayer expense.  

Claiming victory in the county's decision is the Surfrider Foundation, a California-based group of ocean environmentalists. The vote against the Singer Island breakwaters is especially significant because it kills off three similar projects planned from Jupiter to Lantana.    

"A way to look at the entire coastal management process is it's really management of a river of sand," says Greg Lyon, surfer, businessman and chair of the county's Surfrider chapter, "so whatever happens at one beach has an impact at beaches miles away." Breakwaters hasten erosion farther down.  

Storms and wave action both build up beaches and narrow them. In this part of the world, the beach actually grows somewhat in the summer months. The heavy erosion takes place during the fall and winter storm season -- when the condo owners are here to see it.  

Broward County to the south had already produced a thick feasibility study on breakwaters, saying that they provide no net gain while costing a great deal. Breakwaters would require substantially more beach renourishment (sand dumping) than if they weren't there, it concluded.  

They also play havoc with sea life. An estimated 1,000 turtles nest on Singer Island, and their babies would have a hard time swimming around the rocky structures.  

And here's the kicker: The breakwaters would also accelerate what the condo owners dread. The first large swell could overtake the breakwater and quickly erode whatever beach was built up.  

And so why is anyone pushing for this?  

"In our opinion, it was a political agenda," Lyon says. Local politicians told unhappy condo owners that with enough money, they could engineer their way out of beach erosion.  

Enough money is no small sum. "Do the math," Lyon says. "If one mile of breakwaters costs $30 million to $50 million, and if Palm Beach County installed 35 miles of breakwaters to protect the majority of its coastline, the cost would exceed $1 billion."  

Another ill-conceived project -- the extension of the jetty at Jupiter Inlet and the absence of a sand bypass -- created another set of problems. It sends huge deposits of sand offshore to the east, leaving dangerously shallow water for boats. Seasoned sailors recently died after grounding on these shoals.  

There are effective and less damaging ways to maintain beaches, Lyon insists. One involves trapping and bringing this sand back onto the beach. A carefully calibrated sand transfer process was done in Hillsborough inlet in Broward County.  

Meanwhile, Palm Beach Town Manager Peter Elwell told me that he'd be working with Surfrider on some alternatives.  

To the environmentalists, preserving the ocean ecology is a moral imperative. Lyon points to a stretch of sand that evidently covers a reef. Repeated sand renourishment projects largely buried it (with some help from Mother Nature).  

"The reef was here before the condos," Lyon says. "Whose asset was it? It was God's."  



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