Replacing Miami's sand costs millions; here's how Congress could make it cheaper

Miami Beach workers begin the process removing the sand from Ocean Drive in the Hurricane Irma aftermath on September 12, 2017. (David Santiago/El Nuevo Herald/TNS) 1214148
Miami Beach workers begin the process removing the sand from Ocean Drive in the Hurricane Irma aftermath on September 12, 2017. (David Santiago/El Nuevo Herald/TNS) 1214148
Published Oct. 26, 2017

WASHINGTON — Miami is out of sand.

Last year, Miami-Dade County depleted its offshore sand reserves, meaning miles of beaches that shrink from erosion must be replenished with sand from outside South Florida.

Rebuilding Miami's beaches after Hurricane Irma will cost millions of dollars, and sand will have to be brought in by hundreds of trucks from a sand mine near Lake Okeechobee due to a long-standing federal law that prohibits local governments from importing foreign sand.

County officials say that sand from the Bahamas can easily be transported to Miami by barge, and importing foreign sand could save taxpayers millions. A bill dubbed the Sand Act that would overturn the restrictions on sand is being sponsored by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel and is co-sponsored by every member of Congress from South Florida.

"It's such an archaic provision in the law; it's many, many years old," Frankel said.

But Frankel's bill, which allows foreign sand and dredging companies to compete with American firms for sand replenishment contracts, faces opposition from the domestic dredging and sand-mining industries.

"There's resistance from the trucking and dredging industries because they make money; obviously, they are saying they will lose money if there's legislation," Frankel said.

Frankel said that no other member of Congress has personally voiced opposition to the proposal, but "a lot of things go on behind the scenes." One of the largest domestic dredging companies that frequently wins contracts in Florida, Illinois-based Great Lakes Dredge and Lock, is opposed to the proposal and has spent $165,000 in 2017 lobbying Congress on dredging-related issues, according to Senate lobbying records.

A representative for Great Lakes did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Sand Act was introduced at the start of this year's hurricane season, before Irma washed away about 170,000 cubic yards of sand from Miami-Dade's beaches. The amount of sand washed away, about the equivalent of 12,000 truckloads, was less than expected but will still cost millions to replace.

"We're very lucky with regards to response for Hurricane Irma; it wasn't catastrophic for us," said Paul Voight, co-beach program manager for Miami-Dade County.

Currently, contracts for beach renewal projects in South Florida are awarded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Dredging and sand companies bid, and the Corps awards the contract. The most recent contract awarded in Miami-Dade County was $8.6 million to truck in 140,000 cubic yards of sand to replenish a stretch of Sunny Isles Beach. The federal government is covering 63 percent of the cost, with the remainder split between Miami Dade-County and the state of Florida.

But Miami-Dade officials argue that the only option left under current law is trucking in sand, because the county's offshore sand reserve is gone. Other coastal counties in Florida have ample offshore sand reserves that could be dredged, but their governments don't want to share with Miami.

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"We've depleted all of our offshore sources of cheap sand," Voight said. "The problem is the domestic dredging industry is lobbying strongly against it."

Voight added that the cost of fuel and labor makes trucking in sand cost-prohibitive, and that passing the Sand Act would not be a death blow to the domestic dredging industry. The U.S.-based companies could still compete for contracts if the law is changed and sand from the Bahamas is a cost-effective alternative for only a few counties on Florida's Atlantic Coast. Transporting sand from the Bahamas farther afield would likely be too expensive, Voight said.

But Voight said foreign companies have told the county they can replace sand for 33 percent to 50 percent less than the current cost, and the white sand from the Bahamas is compatible with South Florida's beaches.

Margarita Wells, Miami Beach's interim environment and sustainability director, told the Miami Herald that local governments would benefit from having more prices to compare when arranging a beach renourishment project.

"We just need to have more options," she said.

Sen. Bill Nelson said that the Sand Act hasn't come up in discussions about hurricane relief in Congress, though Florida lawmakers are focused on rebuilding portions of the Florida Keys and helping the state's citrus industry.

But Frankel, who represents the bulk of coastal Palm Beach County, including President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club, said coastal erosion due to Irma in the president's backyard could spur him to support the Sand Act.