Bringing Back the Beach

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While they were lying on the beach last week, Terry and Tracie Bergin of Kokomo, Ind., noticed bulldozers spreading piles of sand around them.

But the Bergins said they weren't threatened or bothered. When they eventually left the beach, the bulldozers came behind them and pushed new sand into the area where they had been.

"Nobody asked us to move, nothing," Terry Bergin said. "I thought that was kind of neat."

Panama City Beach, which bills itself as having the "world's most beautiful beaches," is getting more sand courtesy of taxpayers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and local tourism officials say they don't expect the project to spoil anyone's visit.

The new beach sand, sucked from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico just a few hundred yards offshore, will widen the beach for visitors and protect development from hurricanes, said Robert Warren, president and CEO of the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The state will spend $73 million in 2005-06 for sand-pumping projects to restore beaches and other shorelines hit by hurricanes last year, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Development also is booming in Panama City Beach, with 50 condominium projects under construction, most of them along the same beach. They will add 16,000 new units by 2007 to the 19,000 hotel and condominium units available at Panama City Beach.

Some critics of such "beach renourishment" projects question the continuing cost to taxpayers. They say the projects encourage more coastal development without addressing the causes of beach erosion, including sea walls and coastal jetties.

At Panama City Beach, Hurricane Ivan last September washed away 1.5 million cubic yards of sand, Warren said. Other storms and normal erosion caused the loss of close to half of nearly 9.3 million cubic yards of sand that was pumped onto the beach in 1999.

After four hurricanes struck Florida last year, the Department of Environmental Protection is promoting such sand-pumping projects as good restoration for beaches and protection against hurricanes.

The state sand-pumping projects will help protect Florida's $56 billion-a-year tourism industry, said Cragin Mosteller, DEP's press secretary.

"Florida is the number one tourist destination in this country," she said. "A lot of that has to do with our beaches."

Alligator Point in Franklin County is among the 30 or so beaches that will receive money for sand next year.

Along Panama City Beach, an estimated $20 million to $30 million in federal, state and local tax revenue will be spent to widen the 16-mile-long beach by an average of 30 feet.

The offshore sand has been tested to ensure it's nearly as white as the sugary-white sand that Panama City Beach is famous for. If the sand is too dark, the bulldozers will just push it into the sea as the dredge searches for new sand, Warren said.

Watery sand that is sucked off the sea bottom by a vacuum is pumped down the beach for about a mile through a large rusty pipeline.

As the sand and water are pumped onto the beach, the water drains, leaving a pile of sand that is then spread around by bulldozers. The work crew and equipment move along the beach with minimal disturbance to visitors, local tourism officials say.

"If it's in front of you now, it will not be in front of you an hour from now," said Jayna M. Leach, director of sales and marketing at the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The sand pumping could be complete in August, tourism officials said.

Some visitors said they don't mind the work because they hope it will help maintain the beach for future visits.

"It's probably inconvenient when they're doing it," said Brian James of Dresden, Tenn., while collecting shells along the beach with his wife and children. "But when it's all said and done, it probably makes it all better for the tourists."

Florida needs to pump sand onto its beaches to replace what was lost during the hurricanes, said Gary Appelson of the Caribbean Conservation Corp. in Gainesville.

But the sea-turtle group also questions the wisdom of allowing more development that could require continued sand pumping in the future.

"The answer is to seek ways to move landward instead of continuing to permit (new construction) right on the seaward edge," Appelson said. He is policy coordinator for the group's Sea Turtle Survival League program.

The Department of Environmental Protection, while requiring permits for development close to the water's edge, also allows landowners a "reasonable use" of their property, spokeswoman Sarah Williams said.

DEP considers the effects on sand dunes, native vegetation and wildlife in determining whether to issue the permits, Williams said.

"If anything, they (DEP officials) are helping protect the beach area," she said.

Tourism officials in Panama City Beach say the price of sand pumping is offset by the economic benefits of beach tourism.

Six million people a year visit Panama City Beach, spending $630 million, Warren said. They help create 14,000 jobs in the tourism industry.

Said Warren, "The more beach you have, the more beach there is to come play on."