12626785262?profile=RESIZE_710xNatalie Gauthier and Michael Crouteau from Quebec lounge by a cliff of sand in May just north of Boynton Beach Oceanfront Park. The erosion and dead vegetation reflect past storm damage. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

Related: Hurricane season: What to expect 

If disaster strikes, municipalities may need millions ready to spend  

Manalapan: Town to start committee to gather facts about what’s happening with beach

By Anne Geggis

No hurricane warnings, just high winds and rough waves left part of North County’s coast scraped of sand earlier this year, closing beaches, exposing pool pilings and upending backyard landscaping into the ocean.

It also aroused South County fears it could happen here — particularly in places facing erosion without the benefit of beach renourishment funding from state and federal sources.

With no public beaches west of the high tide line, Briny Breezes, Gulf Stream, Highland Beach and Manalapan must find their own solutions to the threat facing every piece of Florida that touches the ocean, because they are not entitled to the direct public funding that supports one of the state’s biggest tourism draws and a boon to local property values. South Palm Beach also has no public beach access, but the town was able to get some help with renourishment through an interlocal agreement with Palm Beach.

The state’s list of communities deemed to be facing “critical erosion” grows with every named storm and sometimes just rough weather.

A critically eroded area 3.3 miles south of the Lake Worth Inlet threatens properties in Ocean Ridge, Briny Breezes, Boynton Beach and Gulf Stream, in addition to Lantana

Municipal Beach Park, according to a July 2023 report from the state Department of Environmental Protection. The same report found that 2.9 miles in Delray Beach is critically eroded, threatening property, all its public beach and State Road A1A.

What the state classifies as “critical erosion” in Boca Raton — extending for 5 miles north of the Broward County line — threatens Spanish River Park, Red Reef Park, South Beach Park and South Inlet Park, as well as State Road A1A and private development, the report says.

“There’s a multimillion-cubic-yard deficit of sand that’s been built up over decades,” said Mike Jenkins, a senior principal engineer with Geosyntec Consultants, a global consulting and engineering firm.

12626785900?profile=RESIZE_710xJupiter Inlet Colony beachfront homeowners suffered damage this past winter during an unexpected weather event. Photo provided by WPEC

Jenkins was on the scene at Jupiter Inlet Colony when unannounced weather there made national headlines for the way it carved up the backyards of multimillion-dollar homes and left 10-foot drop-offs from the dunes to the beach, according to news reports.

Jenkins estimates about 10,000 cubic yards of dunes — or nearly enough to fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools — eroded from the banks in the mid-February storm.

Beaches are, after all, dynamic landforms that shift for natural and human-induced reasons even as the state’s tourism industry is built on them.

Keeping beaches looking buff is important enough that the state in the last three years has allocated nearly $12 million to South County beach renourishment projects from the Lake Worth Inlet to Boca Raton. And municipalities must match most of that state share dollar for dollar.

Competing concerns
For those communities not entitled to publicly funded beach renourishment, though, the erosion draws the often-competing interests at play on the beach into sharp focus.

Among them:

Beach raking: Critics make much of how the state of Florida, by statute, does not endorse mechanical beach cleaning. Some municipalities require that beach rakers get local permits. Their practice is subject to scrutiny by the state DEP and turtle monitors who flag turtle nests to avoid.

Critics at a Manalapan workshop in May said their photos show the theory doesn’t always match the practice, particularly in areas where beach raking is left up to private landowners. And, even when beach raking is done by the book, some peer-reviewed literature suggests that it contributes to erosion.

Limiting blobs of blight: The season of brown clusters of seaweed, noted for their rotten-egg smell, is ramping up, and so is the demand to get rid of them.

The latest report from the University of South Florida shows in almost every monitored region, especially in the central Atlantic, sargassum amounts are in line with more abundant years’ measures. As larger amounts wash ashore, demand that sargassum be removed increases. Ironically, observers say it helps stop erosion.

Preserving sea turtle habitat: Shorter and shorter stretches of gently sloping beaches are leaving less room above the high-tide line for threatened and endangered sea turtles to deposit their egg clutches. What used to be 40 yards of sandy expanse along stretches of south Palm Beach County’s coast have shrunk, and turtles searching for a place to nest quickly run into 6-foot drop-offs, impossible for sea turtles to scale.

Keeping inlets dredged: Sand has historically been removed from the coastal system by dredging. The natural drift of sand along the shore is blocked by jetties, trapped in channels, or moved into ebb and flood shoals, according to literature from the state. Also, a sand transfer plant is in operation on the north side of the South Lake Worth Inlet, also known as the Boynton Beach Inlet. Critics are unhappy the plant is removing sand from Manalapan to benefit Ocean Ridge, the result of a settlement decades ago from a lawsuit brought by Ocean Ridge.

But officials for the county, which operates the plant, say it’s a necessary part of the system that compensates for the effect of the manmade inlet.

The visible effects
The effects of erosion stunned Michael Croteau, 62, and Natalie Gauthier, 53, visiting Ocean Ridge from Quebec for their customary two-month stint through May, they said.

“We were asking ourselves what happened,” said Gauthier, a nursing school teacher, looking at the escarpment near Boynton Beach Oceanfront Park that towered over the beach at a 90-degree angle.

Croteau said he’s been coming here for more than 30 years and he’s never seen it like this before. “I was shocked and disappointed,” Croteau said. “It’s ugly.”

Unlike Ocean Ridge, which was the beneficiary of a post-Hurricane Irma beach renourishment project in 2020, Manalapan is on the same list as Jupiter Inlet Colony without the benefit of getting state help to relieve the conditions chipping away at its coast.

A May 16 workshop brought together residents who want the town to improve its enforcement of beach raking rules, and perhaps ban the practice during turtle nesting season; representatives from the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, advocating for no new limits on when they can rake; and technical advisers including Jenkins.

“Why do a minority of people who like beach aesthetics have priority over the majority who want to protect the beaches, the sea turtles and the wildlife?” asked Dr. Peter Bonutti, Manalapan Town Commissioner Simone Bonutti’s husband.

Jamie Gavigan, a lawyer representing the Eau, said that the resort and spa has the same concern for sea turtles and the area’s other natural resources.

“We don’t need any more regulations,” he said, noting that continued beach cleaning is important for the facility to maintain its five-star rating. “Mechanical beach raking is already highly regulated by the state of Florida.”

The same issues arose in Highland Beach during 2018-2019. Some residents wanted beach raking limited to certain hours, others wanted the town to make it more uniform by taking it over, and still others thought the beach should be left in its natural state.

Ultimately, the town decided to leave regulating it to the state.

“There’s no easy answer to this,” said state Rep. Peggy Gossett-Seidman, who was then on the Highland Beach Town Commission.

Kim Jones, 68, of Ocean Ridge, who was a coastal engineer before retiring, said the problem lies in the way that the regulation is all done from desks and computers.

If people walked the beach, they’d see the raking vehicles’ tire tracks west of the high tide line, all the false crawls by nesting turtles who gave up and all the sand that’s blown away, she said.

“The mechanical cleaning is not being done responsibly because no one’s checking,” she said.

Jones has her own way of predicting how bad the storms are going to be this year: The sea turtles are shooting for higher ground than usual — anticipating pounding surf and high winds that would jeopardize their clutches and wash away more sand.

Jenkins held out some hope: The Palm Beach renourishment project means some of that sand will eventually drift south, to Manalapan, as sand usually does. “Sand is coming this way,” he said.

Manalapan might also take matters into its own hands and opt to build dunes as a town project, Jenkins suggested.

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