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As local sources of sand run out, the city seeks federal help to buy more from points south.

It's midmorning in Miami Beach. The sun is shining, waves are lapping, and a bulldozer is roaring.

The heavy equipment moves in to replenish one of the world's most famous beaches. The Atlantic lies no more than 20 feet away along some stretches, the result of wind and water erosion, not global warming and rising seas.

Miami Beach is losing the fine, bone-white sand that helps draw tourists and annually generate more than $8-billion for the economy, according to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. With domestic sources playing out, the city is asking for federal help to lift a 21-year-old ban on importing sand.

"We're the first county in Florida that's run out of sand," said Brian Flynn, who heads the beach restoration project for Miami-Dade County's Department of Environmental Resources Management.

Miami Beach sits on a barrier island next to Miami, which has a large port but not much beach.

"We might as well be in Nebraska if we don't have sand and surf and beautiful beaches," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose district includes Miami Beach.

Miami Beach for many years replaced sand lost to hurricanes and tides by pumping it from the ocean floor. By 2001, the county determined that supply was too depleted. Officials in nearby St. Lucie, Martin and Palm Beach counties turned down requests for help, saving their sand for their own beaches.

As a stopgap measure, Miami Beach builds up its skinniest spots in the north with sand from the better endowed southern beaches. But there isn't enough surplus sand to do so indefinitely.

The county is asking Congress to appropriate funds in the next federal budget to help buy foreign sand and pay half of the initial $120-million cost of refilling Miami Beach.

Mexico, Panama, Turks and Caicos Islands, Dominican Republic, the Bahamas or other parts of the Caribbean could be sources, Flynn said. Their sand is likely to match the color and texture of Florida's, and price would be a factor, he said.

The goal is to make the 10 miles of beach at least 200 feet wide. To maintain that size for 25 years, the county would need 12-million cubic yards of sand, or 600,000 dump truck loads, Flynn said.

But keeping sand on the beach is a difficult task. Miami's location at the tip of a peninsula and year-round temperatures above 80 degrees make it prone to tropical storms that can quickly wipe out progress.