Keeping Erosion at Bay

Beach nourishment pumps sand — and tourism dollars — onto Panhandle beaches

(page 1 of 4)

Courtesy of Olsen Associates, Inc.

A slurry of water and sand gushes onto Pensacola Beach. When the water dissipates, front-end loaders spread the sand across the beach.



Think “Florida” and what comes to mind?

Is it Orlando and its family-friendly theme parks? Trendy and quirky South Miami Beach, where clubs hop around the clock? Perhaps something more pastoral, like tubing along spring-fed rivers? Swimming with manatees? Boarding a charter boat in Destin for a day of fishing in the Gulf of Mexico? 

Those delightful places and activities are part of Florida’s attraction as a vacation destination, but they’re not the primary draw. For most people who aren’t fortunate enough to live in the Sunshine State, the word “Florida” conjures visions of just one vista: sandy beaches and palm trees.

The state boasts 1,197 miles of coastline, with 825 miles of it sandy beaches along the Atlantic Ocean, Straits of Florida and Gulf of Mexico. Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency, promotes 227 miles of Panhandle beaches, stretching from St. George Island off Apalachicola westward to Pensacola. 

Florida Panhandle beaches are magnets for visitors from throughout the central and eastern Midwest. They’re beautiful, warm and require a lot less driving to reach than the Gulf beaches of Tampa Bay and southwest Florida, or the Atlantic beaches of Jacksonville, Daytona, and Fort Lauderdale. Adding to the allure is its Southern charm, with its rich history, laid-back atmosphere, great shopping and a culinary scene that offers vibrant fusion next to retro Mom-and-Pop diners.

Tourism is the economic engine of the region and the beaches are its primary fuel, but that fuel doesn’t come without a cost. Beach erosion is a constant and ongoing concern.

Forces of nature

The term “shifting sands” may be used to describe loose political alliances and other situations in flux, but its origins lie in the ebb and flow of the tides and how they affect the sands both on the beach and offshore. Tidal movements shift sand along the shoreline and out to sea, and periodic storms dump it back on shore. It’s not a swift process, but it’s normally not a problem unless the sand can no longer follow a natural course because of construction or other development. If the waves crash into obstacles instead of gradually running up on shore, the sand they carry is not deposited and instead recedes with the wave, lost beyond offshore sandbars. The result is beach erosion.

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which monitors and maps beach erosion around the state, the length of critically eroded beachfront increased by 70.7 miles from 2000 to 2010, from 327.9 miles to 398.6 miles. The length of non-critically eroded beach decreased slightly, by a total of 12.1 miles, largely because of nourishment operations.

“Overall, the total length of eroded beaches — critical and non-critical combined — increased by 58.6 miles,” the DEP report said. “Of the 825 miles of sandy beaches in Florida, 494.5 miles are considered either critically or non-critically eroded.”

In order to reduce beach erosion, some coastal communities have halted new development along the shoreline. Likewise, insurance companies have added regulations that forbid rebuilding in the same location in the event of heavy damage or destruction.

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