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THE WAVE OF THE FUTUREBy Micheal Pollick
Business Weekly/Monday, January 25, 1999.
On a stretch of Manasota Key, sea grapes and creeping vegetation convey a sense of permanency where waves once threatened the underpinnings of a double-decker home, and the road behind it. People stroll up and down the beach as far as you can see in both directions.
You might think that Dick Holmberg, the person whose work apparently restored approximately 1,000 feet of beachfront 15 years ago, would be generating huge billings for his firm, as the state scurries to shore up its ever-growing inventory of critically eroded shoreline. But Florida and the nation take a different path to deal with beach erosion: dredging sand, mostly from offshore deposits, to replace the beach sand that has washed away.
Holmberg, who lives in Englewood, a few blocks from the revitalized shoreline along Manasota Beach Road, cannot get a beach restoration job in Florida. Beach experts and government officials, bolstered by reports from coastal engineering firms, say his patented system of Holmberg Stabilizers doesn't usually work. Even if it does work, they suggest, it causes erosion elsewhere along the same beach. Other evidence suggests that the system does work, and without any harmful side effects. What would happen if Holmberg were given a crack at a significant chunk of Florida coastline?
"In six months we'd have treatment going on. One year later you'd see a doubling or tripling of existing beaches," said Holmberg, who is now 62.
But he acknowledged that he has very little chance of getting a significant pilot project going in the state. "I'd have to have somebody down here with political influence and money to take the system on," said Holmberg. Just getting a state permit to install his system, he said, "would take a fight. You have to come in with an attorney and fight to get it."
Instead, Holmberg has gone on to install his stabilizers, which are like specially contoured textile sausages sticking out into the surf, at more than 80 sites along Lake Michigan.
Bob Oertel, a contributing editor at Land &Water magazine for the past 18 years, spent three days with Holmberg in 1995, traveling up and down the coast of Lake Michigan looking at Holmberg's installations. "I've seen them where there was no beach at all, and seen them come back several hundred feet," Oertel said. There are dozens of other mechanical schemes for fighting erosion, but Oertel calls Holmberg's "by far the best I've ever seen."
In Michigan, as in Florida, Holmberg has struggled to get permits. "He ran into a lot of opposition up there," Oertel said.
Holmberg, a lumbering ex-salvage diver who developed his beach restoration method through his own experimentation, installed his beach-building system in front of several homes on Manasota Beach when he was 47 years old. The project, undertaken on behalf of a number of homeowners, was properly permitted by the state.
Four U.S. patents and 80 beach jobs later, Holmberg's system is now more sophisticated. But the principle remains the same as it was in 1984. The system acts like a set of speed bumps for the endless traffic of the waves - and the currents they generate parallel to the shore.
Holmberg kneeled in the sand recently to draw a simple set of lines showing the shape he created on this beach 15 years ago. It looked like the capital letter E, with the middle finger missing. It was made from sand bags. The two fingers reached out toward the sea. The base was parallel to the beach, snugged up to the bluff on which the houses were precariously perched. The idea is that the waves, heavy with sand, are slowed just enough in their angular motion that they drop sand between the fingers.
He installed the system in front of homes situated on a protruding section of beach that left them more exposed than others to passing currents. Did Holmberg's stabilizers work on Manasota Key? Or did the beach, badly eroded in the early '80's, just come back on its own?
The state would have you believe that Holmberg just lucked out and that the beach, which has not been replenished through dredging, came back on its own. In a 1990 letter that sought to dissuade Galveston County, Texas, from employing Holmberg, Ralph Clark of the state's beach management office wrote: "The accretion in front of the Manasota Key projects which became evident in the 1987 beach profiles is unrelated to the backshore sills with toe stabilizers . . . this area of Manasota Key is subject to significant fluctuations in the shoreline position totally unrelated to the existence of the sandbag or rock structures."
But Georgine Dittrich, whose Manasota Key home was threatened by erosion, disagrees. "I think it did work," she said of Holmberg's system. As she explained it, the waves were gouging out a trough along the southern side of her property. "It was very bad . . . We would have lost an awful lot of property, because it cut through. "We had to do something." "It came back beautifully."
Resistance on all sides
Holmberg and his method have run into opposition from virtually all camps. Most state and local governments typically choose dredge-and-fill operations over alternative methods. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers looks at beach-filling in the same way it looks at channel dredging - as a necessary form of infrastructure maintenance. Dredging, as a result, has become a multi-billion dollar business.
Some of the most ardent environmentalists oppose both renourishment and structure building. The environmentalist camp is led by Dr. Orrin Pilkey of Duke University. He believes shorelines should be left alone, and that they naturally erode and then build themselves up again. To him, the idea of building a structure out into the waves that interferes with the movement of sand parallel to the beach is the worst of all sins. "He is just crazy," Pilkey said of Holmberg. "It just doesn't work." Holmberg claims his structures do not interfere with the movement of sand up and down the beach and are therefore different from what the engineers call "groins," which stick out into the water and stop both waves and sand flow. Pilkey says Holmberg's devices do interfere. "They'll act like groins and trap sand," he said. "You're causing sand starvation somewhere else. Inevitably." Pilkey also points out that most of Holmberg's work has occurred along the shores of Lake Michigan, which cannot be compared to either the Atlantic or Gulf coasts.
Holmberg's work to rebuild a stretch of Captiva beach, near Fort Myers, in 1986 ended up turning the tide against him in Florida. It was a pilot project, covering 500 feet of beachfront and encompassing one of the worst erosion hot spots on Captiva Island. The work was paid for by the Captiva Erosion Prevention District. The permit called for Holmberg to build several of his fingers sticking out into the sea, using concrete to attach them to the rock revetments that were already there, then switching to bags filled with sand once he was clear of the rocks.
Did it work? "That depends on who you ask," said the administrator for the independent taxing district, Allison Hagerup. Photos of the site from before and after the February 1986 installation shows that the beach made a quick, impressive comeback. When it comes to expensive beach restoration projects, though, governmental agencies rely on monitoring by qualified consultants.
In this case, George F. Young Inc. monitored the project and concluded that in the first 11/2 years after installation, the beach had gained 30,000 cubic yards of sand. A separate study by an ecology consultant showed that the amount of tiny crustaceans (coquina) living in the zone went from a meager 223 organisms per square meter to more than 6,000 per meter in only five months. This encourages larger forms of life, such as fish, to move back into the area.
Meanwhile, another engineering firm, Coastal Planning and Engineering of Boca Raton, was hired by Captiva Erosion Prevention District to study the island and make recommendations regarding a possible dredging program. Although not directly involved in monitoring the new stabilizer installation, Coastal Planning and Engineering ran its own survey line. That survey line began 20 feet seaward of the baseline established to monitor the stabilizer site, according to Holmberg's partner William Janis. The state took Coastal's data verbatim, he said. This made the stabilizer project look like a failure and justified the dredging project that would follow. "I haven't seen that allegation," said Coastal Planning executive Tom Campbell, who was in charge of Captiva for the company. "If he can point that out to us, we'd be happy to correct it, as we would have been then." Janis takes a more cynical point of view.
"Somehow Holmberg got in there with a demonstration project. He got in the middle of a $10 million dredge project," Janis said. "He had to be killed." Holmberg's 100-foot-long stabilizers cost Captiva Erosion Prevention District less than $100,000, yet the district refused to pay, insisting that Holmberg used more concrete than his permit allowed. Holmberg sued and won payment.
Holmberg and Janis said they have made repeated attempts to get the state to correct its records to show that the Captiva project was successful in accumulating sand, not only at the test site, but also along the beach in both directions from the test site. "Thirty thousand yards of sand is a lot of sand," Janis said.
The dredging habit
Dredging, while it works to restore beaches, has inherent problems. It is a quick fix, but it is not permanent. Sooner or later, dredgers run out of readily accessible offshore sand. And the dredging process itself might make the beach more unstable. If the sand comes from close to shore, dredging can make the beach steeper and the surf deeper. The deeper water means that stronger currents can run up and down the shore - and can pick up more sand and move it in less time.
Regardless of the causes, the erosion phenomenon is clearly occurring in an alarming number of places along Florida's Atlantic and Gulf shores. The amount of shoreline experiencing critical erosion has grown 22 percent in just the past five years, from 233 miles to 300 miles, according to the state's Bureau of Beaches and Coastal Systems. To be called critical, the erosion must endanger one of four specific interests - development, recreation, wildlife habitat or important cultural resources. "We are actively managing 115 miles of it," said Paden Woodruff, a scientist with the Department of Environmental Protection in Tallahassee. Typically, that means dredging sand, either from channels or from offshore, and dragging or pumping it to the beaches.
Florida's east coast alone has been the subject of 144 so-called beach renourishment projects since 1960, with a total outlay of $285 million, according to Duke University's Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.
Along the Gulf of Mexico, 113 beach renourishment projects have taken place since 1960, at a cost of $212 million.
Although Woodruff is one of the primary state officials charged with trying out alternatives to dredging, he was blunt in his assessment. "Most of the projects involve dredging. The program is designed to put sand on the beach," he said. "You restore that area and maintain that area." Many examples show that dredging is a habit rather than a permanent solution. At Captiva, Norfolk Dredging of Chesapeake, Va., has received most of the $10 million from the 1988-89 job. The 1996 renourishment - for another $10 million - was handled by Great Lakes Dredge & Dock of Oakbrook, Ill. Barring a major storm, the same five miles of beach will need to be renourished in 2004, according to Coastal Planning geologist John Walker.
Out of the $20 million spent thus far on Captiva, roughly 60 percent came from state, federal and county coffers, with the remaining 40 percent coming from special assessments of land owners on the island. For Coastal Planning, the renourishment of Captiva has resulted in a steady stream of work. "The one out of Boca has been our engineering firm since the ‘88 project, so eleven years," Hagerup said. She remembered that the first contract was worth roughly $280,000 to Coastal Planning. But the firm has rendered so many different services since, she said, that she would find it difficult to compute how much Coastal has received in all from Captiva.
In the city of Sarasota, Coastal Planning is the consultant in charge of beach restoration as well. The company oversaw a $3 million dredging project that dug up an ancient shoal from seven miles off Lido Beach and used the material to restore the middle part of the key in the winter of 1997-98. The same company is about to ask for permits for a $6 million renourishment of the southern portions of the same beach. Each time the dredgers are called in, they have to go further offshore to mine sand. That raises the cost, said Rick Spadoni, the Coastal vice president in charge of Sarasota. "Eight miles is a long way to go, but there are no other sand sources closer in that we can utilize," Spadoni said. "Every time they bring a load of sand in, it is a 16-mile round trip with a barge."
The Corps The federal agency most closely involved in beach renourishment is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is also charged with creating, managing and deepening the nation's waterways and channels. Holmberg claims that the deep channels the Corps cuts out to the sea act like downhill chutes for sediment, exacerbating and sometimes creating erosion on beaches up to 40 miles away. Tides come in slowly but leave quickly. Thus, when the tide goes out, the channels become effective sand carriers. Currents carrying sand up and down the beach intercept the outgoing current of the channel and are diverted out to sea. The sand essentially is lost to the "system."
At Cape Canaveral, the Corps became the defendant in a long running class action lawsuit by landowners who claimed its work in cutting channels has resulted in their beach erosion. Now, the Corps is participating in a number of beach renourishment projects that are alternatives to dredging.
In Vero Beach, the Corps is monitoring use of another commercial product called the PEP Reef, which involved construction of an artificial offshore reef.
In Pinellas County, the Corps itself installed a detached breakwater and combined that with beach fill at Reddington Shores. This project has been "remarkably successful," according to Nicholas Kraus, a physical scientist with the Corps' Waterway Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Miss. "It was so successful the detached breakwater is buried in sand," Kraus said.
In the case of the Vero project, the Corps served as a third-party monitor of the progress of the experiment. In the case of Pinellas, the Corps was the proponent.
Despite his involvement and interest in these alternatives, Kraus, like the official at the state charged with developing alternatives to dredging, sees a continuing dominant role for dredging. "I don't think there is any other alternative to - I wouldn't call it dredging - but maintenance," Kraus said. "What dredging does is reestablish the natural flow of sediment. The inlet channels interrupt the natural flow of sediment. One of the functions of dredging can be to reestablish that flow."
Officially, the Corps does not accept responsibility for beach erosion. "There is a small number of projects where perhaps a channel or a harbor has caused an erosion problem," said a Corps spokeswoman in Washington, Carol Sanders. "Most of the time, beach erosion arises from natural processes." She said the Corps is currently spending $60 million a year on beach erosion projects.
Like some of the state's beach officials, Kraus has had abrasive interactions with Holmberg. If the newspaper wanted a dialogue with Kraus, it would have to exclude a discussion of Holmberg, Kraus said. "I'd rather not discuss this," he said. Holmberg, discouraged by his reception in the United States, has begun showing off his system abroad. "I may have to leave my country to build myself up financially," he said.
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