Dredging and Beach Renourishment

Suncoast Waterkeeper calls for a comprehensive environmental impact study of beach and inlet erosion control and nourishment practices in our region. Currently we face a disjointed series of projects and proposals from local governments that seek to protect local beaches from erosion in a vacuum. The proposed dredging of Big Pass has raised immediate concerns about Sarasota committing to a 50 year plan to dredge enough sand to fill four Empire State Buildings, but that is but one of a series of projects that seek to mine the shoals that define our area passes and use the sand as fill to build up our vulnerable beaches.  

These projects are driven by the promise of easy money, handed out at the federal and state levels with relatively little cost born by the local government. Avoiding thorough environmental reviews, they are wholly uncoordinated and rarely take adequate consideration of the potential impacts on neighboring beaches and communities, the ecology of the larger estuary, the alternatives available, and they beg examination of the broader fiscal implications of subsidizing beachfront communities' short-term interests.

Small communities with out adequate resources to gather and analyze the information needed to make these important decisions rely on the behemoth Army Corps of Engineers, which validates its existence by pursuing projects which continuously increase in size, scale and cost. The Corps drives these projects forward, minimizing and ignoring public input, failing to study existing conditions, failing to use the best available science and engineering, and oftentimes failing to adequately consider the realities of sea level rise and its implications for our coastal communities.

The Corps projects the conversation as one about public safety, minimizing considerations of potential environmental impacts and wielding the subtle threat of disappearing access to federal funds. Communities are being manipulated by the Corps and powerful special interest groups into pursuing piecemeal projects, which funnel massive amounts of money into the hands of a few government contractors. This is like the cart pushing the horse into quicksand.

We're not suggesting that communities abandon beachfront property owners facing critical erosion, nor are we proposing that government neglect the critical infrastructure provided by our beaches and dunes. This is not an issue of Siesta versus Lido or Longboat or Anna Maria, or mainland versus barrier islands. Our coastal resources are the foundation of our broader region's well-being. We're all in this together and have an obligation to make good decisions to protect and promote the communities of our beautiful Suncoast. 

So let's take a step back, exercise some caution, use some restraint, gather information, examine potential adverse impacts and potential alternatives at a wider scale and make decisions using the best available information and input from all stakeholders. We call for a comprehensive regional EIS that covers beach and inlet erosion control and nourishment practices Sarasota and Manatee County beaches and demand that interim renourishment projects undergo a full EIS rather than the abbreviated assessments that the Corps has offered up to hungry municipalities and complacent regulators.

This is not a novel perspective raised by the tree-hugging fringe, it’s the law. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), one of the foundations of our environmental laws, demands rigorous and objective analysis of a proposed project’s environmental and community impacts, as well as alternatives to the project proposal that lead to informed, realistic governmental decision making. Russell Train, former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, urged that NEPA’s “[c]onsideration of the impacts of proposed government actions on the quality of the human environment is essential to responsible government decision-making. Government projects and programs have effects on the environment with important consequences for every American, and those impacts should be carefully weighed by public officials before taking action. Environmental impact analysis is thus not an impediment to responsible government action; it is a prerequisite for it.” 

Nor would this approach be new to the Corps or our area. After multiple phosphate projects were proposed to the Corps nearby, a chorus of concerned environmental groups and leaders were successful in persuading the Corps to perform an areawide EIS. Although such a comprehensive review may take additional time, it may ultimately speed implementation time by obviating the need to conduct future environmental impact studies for projects that are considered within the proposed comprehensive review. It could also help to identify other sources of sand, alternative strategies for protecting shoreline and reduce costs by more efficiently allocating sand budgets and future projects.