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Island beaches need major infusion of sand

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of December 1, 2022)

Replenishing the barrier island’s 22.4 miles of beaches mangled by Hurricane Nicole, and by Hurricane Ian six weeks prior, will not be quick or cheap.

Indian River County Natural Resources Director Eric Charest told the county’s Beach and Shore Preservation Advisory Committee last week that the county’s shoreline has been labeled a Category 4 for “very significant erosion,” and said federal and state officials are aware of the extent of the damage.

“We’ve been on the beach with FEMA and with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection,” Charest said.

“We weren’t finished with Hurricane Ian surveys when Hurricane Nicole came,” Charest said.

There are no immediate plans for large-scale beach projects to replace the depleted sand before the 2023 Hurricane Season, except for two pre-planned sand dumps by the Sebastian Inlet District on the extreme north end of the island.

Engineering, permitting and funding large-scale dune and beach replenishment will take more time than is available this season. But owners of individual properties in peril due to erosion, and homeowner/condo associations, can apply for emergency dune repair permits from the county. County beach parks can be used for equipment access, Charest said.

While Indian River County works on surveying the beaches to quantify the number of cubic yards of beach sand lost from Nicole, and seeks ways to get reimbursed by the state and federal government for shoring up the dunes, some emergency dune construction is already being done.

Beachcomber Lane, where the dune overwalk was damaged, was the worst hit in Indian River Shores, and the town was the first to act.

The Shores had sand trucked in, placing approximately 400 tons of sand from Stewart Materials on the dune there at a total cost of $18,430.

Several miles to the south in Vero Beach, the city started construction this week to revive one of its most heavily trodden park facilities, the Conn Beach boardwalk, closed since Nicole chewed up the road and paved parking, making the boardwalk unsafe to use.

“We will begin work on an emergency dune repair the week of Nov. 28. Initial cost up to $50,000,” Vero Beach Public Works Director Matthew Mitts said. “This initial work will allow us to reopen Ocean Drive and as many upland (road/street side) access points and parking spaces to the Conn Boardwalk as possible. This work will not include repair of the parking and other road infrastructure damaged from the storm.”

Mitts said a larger project to repair the road and restore the dune that protects the boardwalk could follow, costing 10 times more than the emergency repairs.

“We are still assessing the damage, but based on historical events, we are estimating $500,000. The primary cost is sand. No estimate on schedule at this time. Historically this activity has taken place anywhere from January to April,” Mitts said. “Due to the recent and episodic damages, we may revisit plans for a seawall mitigation project that FEMA previously turned funding down for following the 2004 Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. We are still assessing damages and evaluating options at the moment.”

Since voters approved a referendum decades ago prohibiting the City of Vero Beach from spending tax dollars on large-scale engineered beach replenishment projects, the city can only undertake “emergency” repairs, such as those needed to make the Conn Beach Boardwalk safe to use again.

The responsibility for planning, funding and completing the placement of millions of cubic yards of sand and planting thousands of dune plants on the beaches, divided into seven geographic sectors, has fallen on the county government’s plate.

Typically one sector is replenished at a time, with construction taking place in the late fall, winter and early spring outside of sea turtle nesting season. These large-scale projects can be spaced apart multiple years waiting for funding to be available, but now, multiple areas of beach are in desperate need of sand at the same time, vying for priority treatment.

“At some places, the dune that we restored, it’s virtually gone,” said county Beach and Shore Committee Acting Chair William “Tuck” Ferrell at the group’s Nov. 21 meeting. “Nicole has taken out a lot of sand.”

Indian River County is slated to make major dune repairs at five heavily damaged county beach parks over the next month.


County Administrator Jason Brown gave the Board of County Commissioners a show-and-tell on beach damage with estimates of sand loss, but before and after photos told the real story.

County public works staff walked the island beaches to estimate, in feet, how much sand had been washed out to sea by Nicole. They characterized the damage in three ways – lowering of the berm, meaning the flat portion of the beach extending to the surf; dune retreat, meaning the distance the dune moved closer to structures or to A1A and Ocean Drive; and dune escarpment, meaning the vertical drop from the top of the remaining dune to the flat portion of the beach.

Moving north to south, at Ambersand Beach Access on the north end of the island, they observed a 2-to-3-foot lowering of the berm, with a dune retreat of 4 to 5 feet and an dune escarpment of four to five feet.

At Treasure Shores Beach Park, they observed a 1-to-2-foot lowering of the berm, with a dune retreat of 8 feet and a dune escarpment of 2 to 3 feet.

At Golden Sands Beach Park, they observed a 3-foot lowering of the berm, 6-foot dune retreat and a 7-foot dune escarpment.

At the Town of Orchid’s beach, staff observed major dune erosion – 12 feet of dune retreat and an 8-foot dune escarpment. No lowering of the berm was noted.

At the popular Wabasso Beach Park, they observed a 5-foot lowering of the berm, plus major dune erosion with a 20-to-25-foot dune retreat and a 10-foot dune escarpment.

In the Town of Indian River Shores, the Seagrape Trail Beach Access was observed to have a 4-foot lowering of the berm, a 12-foot dune retreat and a 6-foot escarpment. Turtle Trail had a 3-foot lowering of the berm, a 10-foot dune retreat and a six-foot escarpment.

At the next county beach park south, Tracking Station Beach, staff observed a 4-foot lowering of the berm, a 20-to-25 foot dune retreat and 8-to-11-foot dune escarpment.

The dunes at Humiston Beach Park in the City of Vero Beach suffered major damage, with all the sand being washed away from underneath the boardwalk. The county estimates a 3-foot lowering of the berm, a 12-foot dune retreat and a 6-to-8-foot escarpment.

The beach in front of the Porpoise Point subdivision on South Beach experienced a 4-foot lowering of the berm, a 20-foot dune retreat and a five-foot escarpment. At Round Island Park near the county line, no major beach or dune loss was observed.

While county staff is looking at various options for the beaches, County Commission Chair Joe Earman said he hoped to quell opposition about spending on beach sand. “You’re already hearing the naysayers who ask why are we putting more money on the beach,” he said.

Earman pointed out that island residents with high-value properties contribute a huge amount of tax dollars to county coffers, that sand is funded through bed tax and sales tax – not by ad valorem taxes – and that beaches are a major draw for tourism.