Access to beautiful beaches is a major reason why many people move to or vacation in Florida. So keeping those beaches looking good and functioning well is a necessity in these parts.
“We recognize beaches to be key to our brand and a reason why people come here,” says Steve Boutelle, manager of public works operations for Lee County’s Natural Resources division. “The tourism aspect is hugely important. Beaches [also] do a great job as a first line of defense against storm impacts, so every project that we do has a combination of benefits to it.”
Lee and Collier counties constantly monitor their miles of beaches to assess where maintenance and nourishment are needed due to natural erosion or particularly strong storms. At the end of 2020, Collier County completed a $2 million beach re-nourishment project at Naples Beach from Doctors Pass to just north of Lowdermilk Park. “It was routine maintenance, because the sand washes away to a certain extent every year,” says Andy Miller, principal project manager for Collier County Coastal Zone Management.
That project involved adding to the beach about 63,000 tons of sand that came from Stewart Materials in Immokalee, a supplier of processed aggregate materials. Miller says the two main ways Collier County undertakes beach nourishment projects is either hauling sand in by the truckload or dredging it from off shore. For this smaller-scale project, trucking it in was the way to go.
Not only was it a cost-effective approach, it also guaranteed the county received the preferred kind of sand needed for replenishing Naples Beach. Unlike with dredging, where there’s always a level of uncertainty as to the size, color and quality of sand you’re going to get, Stewart Materials can sort the sand by grain size and color. “We specify that we want this grain size and this color, or we don’t accept it,” says Miller. “So we get really nice sand out of there. The one we like is nice and u y and is also going to have a consistent color.
… Our nice, wide beaches draw a lot of tourists, especially when we put this nice, white Immokalee sand down there. It definitely pays for itself.”
A 2015 report published by the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research—what Lee County’s Boutelle calls “the benchmark study” to measure return on investment—proves that point. It found that for every dollar spent by the State of Florida for beach restoration between fiscal year 2010-2011 and fiscal year 2012-2013, $5.40 of additional tax revenue was generated. “The economic justification is there,” says Boutelle. “The quality of life is there. The environmental bene ts are there. It’s one of those things that’s a pretty easy sell.”
In 2022, Lee County will be working on beach nourishment projects at Bonita Beach (estimated cost: $2.5 million) and Lovers Key (estimated cost: $11.3 million). Pairing the two sites that are close to each other offers some financial efficiencies. “It takes a lot of money to move the kind of equipment necessary to build these beach projects into place,” says Boutelle. “By pairing them up, we can save some on that mobilization expense.”
Lee County is still finalizing all the details for these projects, but Boutelle expects the county will bring in offshore sand by way of dredging. “Cost is a factor, but you also have to make sure to get the right sand,” he says. “Because from a regulatory perspective, an aesthetic perspective and an environmental perspective, if you don’t get the sand right, you’re going to have a problem.”
The wrong sand can not only affect the way a beach looks but can also negatively influence the sea turtles that nest on the beach or the birds that nd food there. For these upcoming projects, Boutelle expects to get sand from as far as 30 miles offshore, load it onto a ship and then bring that ship in closer to shore to pump the sand out onto the beach.
There’s no doubt that work will be appreciated. According to the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau’s 2019 Visitor Tracking, Occupancy & Economic Impact Study, the beach ranked as travelers’ top reason for visiting Lee County and the top visitor activity. A portion of the county’s bed tax is used to fund its beach and shoreline program, with $10 million going toward countywide beach nourishment, facility maintenance and other projects and improvements in 2019. Tourist development tax funds are also used to pay for beach maintenance projects in Collier County, and both counties also tap into available state funding for projects.
Beach maintenance is just a fact of life in these parts, and dredging or hauling in sand is the best way to do it, said county officials. Some beaches on the east coast use sand fences to help trap sand, but Miller said they require a lot of upkeep and would limit the amount of recreational access on Collier County’s beaches.
Building artificial reefs to help keep the sand on the beach also wouldn’t be the best approach in this area. Boutelle said the sand that’s at your favorite beach on any given day isn’t supposed to stay there forever. “In reality, the way the coastal system works is that sand is always in motion, generally moving along the shoreline,” he says. “So the beach you see here today is supposed to go somewhere else tomorrow. Could you build something that would stop that process and hold that sand in place? Yes, you probably could. But that means the place that was supposed to get that sand now isn’t going to, and now you’ve just created a new environmental problem somewhere else.”
It also wouldn’t make as much sense financially as bringing in sand. “Knowing that we have 11 miles of beaches to protect, it wouldn’t be economically feasible to build a reef for 11 miles,” says Miller. “Renourishment is just something we accept. And it also enables us to improve our beaches to the point where they are higher and wider, and allow for a lot more tourist use and enjoyment.”
More than 419 miles of Florida’s 825 miles of shoreline have been designated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as “critically eroded.” That means the level of erosion threatens development, recreational, cultural and/or environmental interests.
According to Lee County, a wide beach can reduce hurricane damage by 50%. Healthy beaches also attract and sustain wildlife and contribute to the quality of life in the region.
And there’s no denying the impact the quality of our beaches has on tourism in the area, a major component of our local economy. In both counties, the beaches are consistently the top draw and top activity for visitors, who open their wallets when they’re here to the benefit of local businesses. Visitor spending in Lee County in 2019 generated a total economic impact of more than $5 billion; in Collier County that total economic impact was more than $2 billion in the same year.