PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. — As the last sands of a $30 million beach renourishment project wash back into the Gulf of Mexico, some Florida Panhandle officials are seeking state and federal permits and funding from oil spill fines to shore up the beaches before the 2015 tourism season.
However, critics say it’s time to consider more sustainable ways of dealing with coastal erosion.
Escambia County pumped 7.2 million cubic yards of sand onto Pensacola Beach between 2002 and 2006. Now that much of that sand is gone, the gulf is washing closer and closer to hotels, condominiums and roads.
The Pensacola News Journal reports that some areas of the beach are so narrow that lifeguard trucks have difficulty patrolling the shoreline.
Beach and county officials want another $30 million to renourish Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key, saying it’s a small price to pay to protect tourism.
“We’re seeing the end of the first nourishment project,” said Timothy Day, the county’s environmental programs manager. “A project on the Gulf of Mexico typically lasts 10 to 12 years. Sand we’ve placed here has moved offshore and west.”
The sand that was previously pumped onto Pensacola Beach came from the gulf floor, four miles offshore. Officials say nearly 3 million cubic yards have now returned to the gulf, while some of the sand has migrated west into Gulf Islands National Seashore or Pensacola Pass.
Escambia County beaches generate most of the $715 million tourists inject directly into the economy through hotel rooms, dining, shopping and recreation annually, based on 2012 figures, said Steve Hayes, Pensacola Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau vice president of tourism.
Some scientists and environmental advocates argue that beach renourishment is a losing battle.
Rising sea levels will increase beach erosion rates and require more frequent renourishment projects, said Christian Wagley, a Pensacola environmental and coastal zone scientist.
“Ultimately, for all but the most highly developed and valuable areas, it will be too expensive to try to maintain the shoreline in place,” he said. “We could expect to see buildings and infrastructure relocated and abandoned.”
New hotels and restaurants could be built on the mainland while less expensive attractions such as personal watercraft vendors could be located closer to the water, said Darryl Boudreau, Nature Conservancy director of Florida county government relations.
“Provide tourism but not with such high-risk development,” he said. “Do we really want to keep putting high-value development on the beach when you know you have to fight to keep that beach there?”