In Miami, worries about Cuba include grains of sand
BY DOUGLAS HANKS
Concerns over the tourism threat Cuba poses to Miami have reached the
granular level: Who will have the better sand?
In pitching his new $40 million plan to combat beach erosion, Miami-Dade
Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Tuesday pledged to find replacement sand white
enough to hold its own against Cuba’s famously gleaming coast.
“It has some of the best beaches, and most beautiful beaches, in the
world,” Gimenez said of Cuba, where he lived until age 7. “We have to
Gimenez’s warning captures the anxiety in tourism circles over how a
newly accessible Cuba might upend the Caribbean vacation market once
U.S. tourists are free to travel there. Miami is seen as vulnerable to a
Cuban comeback as a U.S. vacation destination, given they both offer
sunny getaways during the winter months.
“We need to make sure our beaches are as good as we can make them,”
Gimenez told a county board overseeing a borrowing program that would
fund $10 million of the sand-renourishment program. “We need to have
white, sandy beaches.”
South Florida’s sandy status quo would be fine, but replacement grains
are the problem. South Florida used to just dredge offshore to fight
erosion and pull in pristine white sand as replacement for what was
washed away. But years of replenishment operations have all but wiped
out the undersea sand supply off Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
One possibility is to dredge farther north off Martin and St. Lucie
counties, where the ocean has plenty of sand reserves left. But that
sand won’t match the color of South Florida’s, said Stephen Leatherman,
a Florida International University professor of environmental studies
who is best known as “Dr. Beach” for his annual list of the country’s
top stretches of sand.
“I’ve seen some samples,” Leatherman said of the northern underwater
sand. “It’s pretty dark. I don’t think anybody would like that.”
For a renourishment program starting this fall, Broward plans to use
dump trucks from sand mines in Central Florida to replace sand the ocean
washed away off Fort Lauderdale and beyond. Nicole Sharp, Broward’s
natural-resources administrator, said the mines were able to match the
native color so well that it’s all but impossible to see where the
impostor grains were dumped two years ago in the wake of erosion caused
by Superstorm Sandy. “You can’t tell what sand was brought in,” she
said, “and what sand was already there.”
Miami-Dade also has used Central Florida sand for some spot-replacement
jobs, and tentatively plans to tap the area again for the Gimenez
renourishment project that’s now heading to the county commission for
final approval. But Gimenez is raising the possibility of importing new
sand from abroad if color becomes a problem.
“We’re going to look at the quality of the sand,” he said. “If we end up
buying white Bahamian sand to make Miami Beach as attractive as
possible, we’re going to do that.”
Using Bahamian sand may be pricey. Leatherman said luxe Fisher Island
shipped in sand from the Bahamas for its exclusive beaches. “That’s
super-white sand, and sand that’s going to be even better than in Cuba,”
he said. “That’s finer and whiter sand than what’s on Miami Beach, for
Using foreign sand would disqualify Miami-Dade from the possibility of
using federal funds to cover half of the $40 million program cost.
Federal rules require domestic sand for most renourishment programs.
Gimenez wants to spend only $10 million in county tax dollars for the
renourishment program, which would bring about 220,000 tons of new sand
to Miami Beach between 46th and 53rd streets next summer. Sunny Isles
Beach would get a similar refill the following year. Miami-Dade would
likely qualify for a $10 million state matching grant, with Washington
expected to contribute its own match of $20 million.
In an interview, Gimenez said Miami-Dade is exploring the possibility of
finding Bahamian sand that’s cheap enough to make the federal match
unnecessary. Sharp, the Broward administrator, said a foreign dredge
company has been pitching the prospect of affordable Bahamian sand.
For Gimenez’s plan, the local tax money comes from the $2.9 billion
Building Better Communities borrowing program that was authorized by
county voters in 2004 and paid back by a special property tax dedicated
to debt payments.
The county advisory board overseeing BBC expenditures on Tuesday
endorsed the one-time allocation, despite concerns that the money is
being siphoned from an allocation dedicated to fighting suburban sprawl
by purchasing development rights. Gimenez said the county has enough
money to continue the purchasing program for several years until the
county finds a way to replenish it.
“These development rights are still really important,” said Katy
Sorenson, the former county commissioner who heads the BBC board.
Gimenez came under fire earlier this month when a group of coastal
mayors led by Miami Beach’s Philip Levine held a surfside news
conference to criticize the county and state for letting Miami-Dade’s
coastline erode. They demanded permanent funding for beach
replenishment, rather than the one-time dip into borrowed funds Gimenez
In his comments Tuesday, Gimenez said he planned to lobby the state for
beach-renourishment money as a way to protect the Sunshine State from
its rival to the south.
“The competition we’re going to get from Cuba on tourism, and beach, and
sand, et cetera, is a state issue,” he said. “We’re not the only place
that relies on tourism.”
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