Concerns over the tourism threat Cuba poses to Miami have reached the granular level: Who will have the better sand?
In pitching his new $40 million plan to combat beach erosion, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez on Tuesday pledged to find replacement sand white enough to hold its own against Cuba’s famously gleaming coast.
“It has some of the best beaches, and most beautiful beaches, in the world,” Giménez said of Cuba, where he lived until age 7. “We have to face that.”
Giménez’s warning captures the anxiety in tourism circles over how a newly accessible Cuba might upend the Caribbean vacation market once U.S. tourists are free to travel there. Miami is seen as vulnerable to a Cuban comeback as a U.S. vacation destination, given they both offer sunny getaways during the winter months.
“We need to make sure our beaches are as good as we can make them,” Giménez told a county board overseeing a borrowing program that would fund $10 million of the sand-renourishment program. “We need to have white, sandy beaches.”
South Florida’s sandy status quo would be fine, but replacement grains are the problem. South Florida used to just dredge offshore to fight erosion and pull in pristine white sand as replacement for what was washed away. But years of replenishment operations have all but wiped out the undersea sand supply off Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
One possibility is to dredge farther north off Martin and St. Lucie counties, where the ocean has plenty of sand reserves left. But that sand won’t match the color of South Florida’s, said Stephen Leatherman, a Florida International University professor of environmental studies who is best known as “Dr. Beach” for his annual list of the country’s top stretches of sand.
“I’ve seen some samples,” Leatherman said of the northern underwater sand. “It’s pretty dark. I don’t think anybody would like that.”
For a renourishment program starting this fall, Broward County plans to use dump trucks from sand mines in Central Florida to replace sand the ocean washed away off Fort Lauderdale and beyond. Nicole Sharp, Broward’s natural-resources administrator, said the mines were able to match the native color so well that it’s all but impossible to see where the impostor grains were dumped two years ago in the wake of erosion caused by Superstorm Sandy. “You can’t tell what sand was brought in,” she said, “and what sand was already there.”
Miami-Dade also has used Central Florida sand for some spot-replacement jobs, and tentatively plans to tap the area again for the Giménez renourishment project that’s now heading to the county commission for final approval. But Giménez is raising the possibility of importing new sand from abroad if color becomes a problem.
“We’re going to look at the quality of the sand,” he said. “If we end up buying white Bahamian sand to make Miami Beach as attractive as possible, we’re going to do that.”
Using Bahamian sand may be pricey. Leatherman said luxe Fisher Island shipped in sand from the Bahamas for its exclusive beaches. “That’s super-white sand, and sand that’s going to be even better than in Cuba,” he said. “That’s finer and whiter sand than what’s on Miami Beach, for sure.”
Using foreign sand would disqualify Miami-Dade from the possibility of using federal funds to cover half of the $40 million program cost. Federal rules require domestic sand for most renourishment programs.
Giménez wants to spend only $10 million in county tax dollars for the renourishment program, which would bring about 220,000 tons of new sand to Miami Beach next summer. Sunny Isles Beach would get a similar refill the following year. Miami-Dade would likely qualify for a $10 million state matching grant, with Washington expected to contribute its own match of $20 million.
In an interview, Giménez said Miami-Dade is exploring the possibility of finding Bahamian sand that’s cheap enough to make the federal match unnecessary. Sharp, the Broward administrator, said a foreign dredge company has been pitching the prospect of affordable Bahamian sand.
For Giménez’s plan, the local tax money comes from the $2.9 billion Building Better Communities borrowing program that was authorized by county voters in 2004 and paid back by a special property tax dedicated to debt payments.
The county advisory board overseeing BBC expenditures on Tuesday endorsed the one-time allocation, despite concerns that the money is being siphoned from an allocation dedicated to fighting suburban sprawl by purchasing development rights. Giménez said the county has enough money to continue the purchasing program for several years until the county finds a way to replenish it.
“These development rights are still really important,” said Katy Sorenson, the former county commissioner who heads the BBC board.
Giménez came under fire earlier this month when a group of coastal mayors led by Miami Beach’s Philip Levine held a surfside news conference to criticize the county and state for letting Miami-Dade’s coastline erode. They demanded permanent funding for beach replenishment, rather than the one-time dip into borrowed funds Giménez proposed.
In his comments Tuesday, Giménez said he planned to lobby the state for beach-renourishment money as a way to protect the Sunshine State from its rival to the south.
“The competition we’re going to get from Cuba on tourism, and beach, and sand, et cetera, is a state issue,” he said. “We’re not the only place that relies on tourism.”