Coastal communities should find better alternatives to dredging

By Brett Fitzgerald

On March 2, Judge Robert E. Meale ruled against the town of Palm Beach and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, recommending denial of a permit for a large dredge-and-fill project at the south end of Palm Beach (Reach 8). If the ruling stands, it will undoubtedly affect other such projects on Florida’s coastal islands, and represent the first time any such project will have been stopped.

I applaud the judge’s ruling. It is a wake-up call for governments planning to protect buildings constructed too close to the ocean. Offshore dredge sites are nearly depleted of good-quality sand.

At issue was the quality of material to be dredged from offshore borrow pits. The judge sided with the plaintiffs, including Surfrider Foundation, the Snook Foundation, the city of Lake Worth and three individuals. Damage to environmental and recreational resources was cited, and the judge agreed with the plaintiffs on each and every issue.

The ruling constitutes a lecture by the judge to the town and its consulting engineers, Coastal Planning and Engineering of Boca Raton. The judge called the consultant’s work “an embarrassment.”

I frequently go to the beach with my wife and children, and we love to fish, snorkel and enjoy the natural beach.

Most of our native sand is provided by local seashells that have been broken and polished in the shallow water. I have witnessed the damage done when poor-quality material is dredged from offshore and dumped onto our natural sand beaches.

That happened just a couple years ago at Reach 7 (at Phipps Ocean Park in Palm Beach). The sand was poor quality and quickly washed away, wasting millions in tax dollars. All life on the near shore reef was destroyed.

Some of our best beaches are between Manalapan and Boca Raton, and we cannot let them be buried with muddy silt.

The material planned for the Reach 8 beach would have created such murky water that it would have killed coral, fish, sea turtles and dozens of other species that live on the shallow water reefs just a few feet from the beach.

Sharks are much more likely to bite humans if the water is murky, and lifeguards cannot even see the sharks to warn us. Serious damage would also have been caused by silt blanketing the deep reefs at the offshore dredge sites.

The secretary of DEP has until June to decide whether to accept the judge’s ruling. The judge encouraged the construction of planted dunes to reduce erosion, if “beach-compatible” sand is used. In the meantime, coastal communities need to explore alternatives to dredge and fill. Improving the transfer of good-quality sand past our inlets must be required. For example, at Boynton Inlet the majority of sand is lost to deep water.

Brett Fitzgerald is regional director/southease of The Snook Foundation

Editor's note: At a special meeting on March 26, the Palm Beach Town Council decided to not appeal Judge Meale's ruling and abandoned its state permit application to dredge and fill the Reach 8 beach.

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