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  1. Opinion

Column: The future of Florida's beaches and the public's right to know

Published Dec. 4, 2015

A while back, some citizens from around Apalachicola invited me to speak about sea-level rise and its impact on Florida's beaches. They attempted to arrange for my public lecture to be given at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, where classes and workshops for the public are often held in their education center.

Kevin Claridge, the director of Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Coastal Division, turned down the request. The reason: I would be speaking against Florida's coastal management policy and regulations. This was certainly the case, and local citizens' unhappiness with these regulations was why I was invited to speak.

Claridge and Gov. Rick Scott apparently do not understand that one of the major principles of a democratic society is that those who oppose policies of the government are allowed to speak freely. This is especially true in a facility such as the research reserve, funded by both state (DEP) and federal (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) monies.

This rejection was a huge disappointment to me and my host. I am a Ph.D. graduate of Florida State University and have co-authored four books about the beaches of the state. Since my graduation in 1962, I have watched the quality of Florida beaches deteriorate as a result of dense development.

But what is most appalling to me is that the state has a very weak coastal management program and has carried out no realistic planning about how to respond to sea-level rise. The rise is expected to be 2 feet and perhaps significantly more by the year 2100. In fact, leading politicians of the state, including the governor, deny global climate change and have forbidden their lieutenants from even mentioning the seven words "climate change, global warming, sea level rise."

Here's what Claridge might have heard if he had come to my talk. Florida's shoreline is probably the most densely developed in the world, with hundreds of miles of high-rise-lined beaches. It's too costly to move all the high-rises back from the rising sea, and besides, there's no place to move them.

For example, what does the state intend to do about densely developed Miami and Fort Lauderdale? This whole region overlies the highly porous Miami Limestone, and as sea level rises against the beaches, the water will also rise within the cities. In spite of this, high-rise development continues in a never-ending fashion. Seawalls, levees and dikes will not prevent inundation of the cities and salinization of the water supply.

On both sides of Florida, beach-damaging seawalls are sprouting, on both open-ocean and estuarine shorelines. When a shoreline is eroding to the point that buildings or highways are threatened, the question arises: Which is more valuable — buildings, highways or beaches? Seawalls on eroding shorelines always eventually destroy the beach. Beach replenishment is often used to replace the lost beaches, but as sea level rises, the sand put on beaches will disappear faster and faster. It is clear that beach replenishment is a Band-Aid solution, not a solution to a long-term problem.

On my recent trip to Florida for my November presentation, I drove for mile after mile along sea-walled shorelines next to Highway 98 on the "forgotten coast." Many of the seawalls were made up of piles of construction debris. I explained to my audience that for every mile of highway that was protected, we gave up a mile of beaches. To prevent this loss, the highway could have been moved back. Nobody asked the question: Which is more important, the beaches or the road?

There are a few in Florida who are spreading the word about rising sea level, such as geologist Hal Wanless of the University of Miami. But they remain voices in the wilderness.

Beaches are the very lifeblood of the state of Florida. The time is long past for the state to recognize this, to acknowledge global climate change, and to pull its head out of the sand. Times a-wasting, and as former Florida Gov. Bob Graham once said, "This generation doesn't have the right to destroy the next generations' beaches."

Orrin H. Pilkey is the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology in the Nicholas School of the Environment, Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences, at Duke University. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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