Kim Porter is a longtime diver who loves just strapping on her gear and wading into the water right off the beach near her Pompano home — no dive boat required. Just offshore, there's a reef where she visits corals and tropical fish, nurse sharks and lobsters. "Everything you would see on a tropical reef," she says.
But now that Broward cities have been receiving dump trucks full of sand to replenish eroded beaches, that new sand is being washed onto the reef, ruining the sea life, Porter says.
Over the years, coastal cities have periodically carried out beach renourishment projects — often to the detriment of marine life, say environmentalists. "I'm extremely active in the dive community," Porter says. "When you see this reef that you've spent so much quality time on, to see this happen time and time again, you get angry," she says.
"Last year," she says, "I held a protest in the form of a 'funeral' for the inner reef system. Last weekend, I did one at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, to educate people on how important the reef is. A healthy reef equals a healthy beach. Nobody even realizes there's a reef out there. They think the reef stops at the Keys. They see a dump truck [bringing sand] and they say, 'Yay, we'll have new, beautiful beaches!' I don't."
Porter says that she moved to the area precisely because of the nearshore reef. In Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Oakland Park, and Pompano, she says, the reefs run parallel with the beaches. "They dip in here closer to beach closer than anywhere in Florida, so divers can access them without a boat. By Key Largo, the reef system is miles offshore. We have a unique situation here."
Last year, Porter says, authorities "were thickening the beaches — they weren't extending it into the ocean. This year what they're doing is for nine months straight, bringing dump trucks full of sand and extending beaches outward — at Pompano, 12th street — 110 feet out into the ocean. That brings you almost to the swim buoys. The reef starts just outside those swim buoys. It's a patchy, broken reef — one of my favorite dive spots."
Trucks will soon move southward to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and to Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. The organization Cry of the Water has been litigating and trying to block the permit for 15 years, but, in Porter's words, "it finally got approved and the environment lost."
This type of project is largely self-regulated by the contractor, she says. "He's doing his own turbidity testing. Bringing in his own marine biologist. Submitting samples to the state every so often. I bet he never fails!"
Porter, a property manager and underwater photographer, says that divers are fighting back by collecting images and data that they hope will halt beach renourishment the next time it is proposed. Palm Beach County Reef Rescue provided select divers with GPS tracking devices to document what they see.
"Coral grows extremely slowly, so if you run across a mound of coral that's as tall as you, guess what?" Porter asks. "That coral is as old as your grandparents.That's what we have been documenting. Last year when they thickened the beaches, our coral got sick." Barrel sponges, which are normally brown and round, she said, got a disease that caused them "to turn into a pile of mush — a rubbery white chunk of stuff."
The imported sand is coming from a mine near Lake Okeechobee. Although authorities have deemed it compatible with the Broward beaches, Porter says it seems very different — "ashen white. Ours is a golden bronze. It's live, it's just come off the reef, it's beautiful. What they're putting in is dead and powdery."
Porter says that official estimates predict that the new sand will not travel more than 17 feet offshore and thus shouldn't harm the reef, "but the reason they can get away with making that evaluation is that there's no data to prove otherwise. All us divers, we just started carrying GoPros two to three years ago. Now we can document it. We're not going to stop this sand event. But we hope to have data in place so that five years from now, when they want to build out the beaches all the way to the Bahamas so that tourists are happy, we'll say, 'Look — this is what happened last time.' We'll have data to prove our point."
Once the contractors are out of the way, she says, she'll go in with a team of photographers and document the reef at Palm Avenue, 12th Avenue, and Vista Park, and "and show these pictures to the world, how everything is dying now. 'This was a live coral last month, now it's a dead coral.' I'll overwhelm everyone with data, to make it not happen again."
All these beach renourishment projects are futile anyway, she says. "If we're dealing with sea level rise, you can dump all the sand you want — it's going to wash away. We understand there are buildings that need to be protected, but we need to find a more sustainable solution. The $55 million that they're spending to extend these beaches — they should put that money in investing in a permanent solution."