$3B plan could help Collier protect against storms, sea-level rise, but much work remains

Karl Schneider Patrick Riley
Naples Daily News
Visitors relax along along the shore of Naples beach, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020.

Climate change is intensifying already fierce storms that could threaten Collier County's vulnerable shoreline, experts say.

A wide-ranging 50-year plan that would dramatically alter the county's coast seeks to steel its beaches, back bays and buildings, but some worry the proposal doesn't go far enough.

Operating under a massive $3 billion price tag, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put together a feasibility study to present the county with a handful of options. Corps engineers have pointed to one as the preferred plan that would include acquiring more than 100 homes, flood-proofing hundreds of other structures and elevating more than 1,300 residences.

The county’s coastline will remain vulnerable to storm damage if no plans are made to promote resiliency, a draft of the overall plan says. 

The mammoth undertaking, even if eventually approved by the Corps’ chain of command and U.S. Congress, is likely still years away from seeing construction start. Its enormous costs will be partly borne by the county, but it’s not yet clear how the local government’s share would be financed.

And Collier isn’t alone in grappling with the already-evident impacts of a warming climate and rising seas.

Earlier this year, Corps officials released a similar study for Monroe County, where little separates the Florida Keys from encroaching seas. In Miami-Dade County, the federal agency is also considering measures to build up storm resiliency. 

With sea level rise, “nobody can question” that storms are getting more intense, said Collier coastal projects manager Gary McAlpin.

“The oceans are warming, which are an incubator for hurricanes,” he said.

Warming oceans create stronger hurricanes

The crux of the county’s vulnerability is flood damage caused by storm surge. Two factors compound that problem: warming oceans and melting ice caps, said Jhordanne Jones, a Ph.D candidate at Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Science.

As global temperatures rise, some of that heat is transferred into the oceans. The heat energy stored in the water then fuels and intensifies any storms passing overhead. Warmer water also expands, exacerbating the problem of added volume from melting ice caps.

Jones explained that even though ice caps are thousands of miles from Southwest Florida, it’s essentially like having a full cup of water and trying to pour more into it:

“Nothing has changed in the geometry of the world. We already have this full body of water and the rest is stored in the form of ice,” she said. “With global warming, that reserve of water is melting, meaning more volume of water in less space and it spreads down toward us.”

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Scientists who keep track of sea levels said 2019 marked the eighth consecutive year that the global mean sea level increased relative to the previous year, according to the State of the Climate in 2019 report from the American Meteorological Society.

Specific to Collier's coast, the Corps' study cites The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's prediction that sea-level rise averages about 2.8 millimetres each year. Within the scope of the 50-year project's life, the Corps independently estimates Collier will see between 0.14 - 0.78 feet of rising sea levels between 2028 and 2077. That top level translates to nearly 9.4 inches.

“Put those together with hurricanes and you have what can perhaps be incredibly devastating,” Jones said. “Any storm that survives that path across the eastern Atlantic and ends up in the Gulf will very likely intensify.”

Collier's constant beach troubles

Collier’s coast, a draw for locals and tourists alike, is in many ways the piston that powers the county’s economic engine. But its makeup also poses a special set of challenges to the county, especially as seas continue to rise and storms grow more fierce. 

“Our coasts are very conducive to storm surge because we have a shallow, narrow coast, with a very slight slope on it,” McAlpin said. “So instead of on the East Coast where you’ve got the continental shelf dropping off immediately, you’ve got a nice smooth transition, right up on to our beaches.

“And that's really conducive to that water coming across, that storm surge coming across and wiping out the first to second floors of many of our major condominiums, and many of our homes that were built in the 1950s that are basically low and very close to the beach,” McAlpin said.

Did you know?:Collier commissioners approve $2M beach renourishment in Naples

Any spots in coastal communities where you have low-lying structures would be vulnerable, he said, and existing sea walls are likely not tall enough to be a match for future storm surges. 

Collier is one of the few coastal counties in Florida that did not have a long-term grant with the Corps to renourish its beaches. As a result, McAlpin said, the county has spent “a considerable amount of money over the years,” because it pays for beach renourishment with tourist taxes.

Estero residents Heidi and her twin brother Michael, age 2, explore the shores of Naples beach with their mother Kimberly Gordon, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020.

Since 2000, the county has spent about $100 million between beach renourishment and pass dredging, which helps supply the sand for renourishment. That figure does not include beach maintenance or cleaning, McAlpin said.

“So, 10 years ago we started working with the Corps to qualify for beach renourishment, a 50-year grant for beach renourishment, and during that period of time, the Corps gradually realized and appreciated the significance of storm surge,” he said.

Other impacts from sea-level rise include aquifers becoming inundated with salt water, so-called sunny-day flooding and estuaries experiencing a change in salinity, which can impede oyster reef growth. But the focal point for this study, McAlpin said, is the increasing threat of storm surge.

“The storm surge is the most critical in terms of damage, immediate damage,” he said.

The idea is to not only fortify the beaches, the first line of defense against storm surge, but to also protect the county’s vulnerable back bay structures.

“We need to do it holistically to protect all of the property,” he said.

Corps gravitates toward one alternative

The Corps’ draft study outlines multiple options for stakeholders to review but has chosen one as its Tentatively Selected Plan. 

The preferred plan “not only has the highest annual net benefits out of all the proposed alternatives, but it also provides a more comprehensive and effective solution that aligns with the overall project objectives,” the study says.

“This mission in general has historically been a beach project,” Susan Layton, the Corps’ chief of planning, said. “Still, the beach is a big part of it, but it’s expanded. We’re (the Corps) now looking at the beach and inland or back bay areas behind the beach.”

The United States Army Corps of Engineers' Duval County Coastal Storm Risk Management project in progress.

It divides Collier’s coastline into six planning areas, stretching from Bonita Beach Road south to Marco Island.

Among the proposed measures: 

  • Renourishment of about 9.5 miles of beach berms and dunes along two reaches of shoreline, stretching from the northern county line at Bonita Beach Road through Vanderbilt Beach, and from Seagate Drive south to Central Avenue. Those reaches were identified as critical to help protect upland structures, both adjacent to the beach and along the inland bay areas during storms.
  • A host of structural measures, which include, among others, surge barriers and floodwalls.
  • “Dry floodproofing” of critical infrastructure buildings that were identified as at risk of storm damage. Dry floodproofing means the structure deters all water, while wet floodproofing lets water into a structure while still avoiding damage. 
  • Artificial reef structures near Marco Island that would disperse waters from storm surge.
  • Acquiring 130 homes, floodproofing 620 non-residential structures and elevating 1,350 residences. 

Implementing the proposed measures would require permits and/or modifying existing permits, Zach Martin, of the Corps's planning and policy branch, wrote in an email.

"For instance, beach-renourishment actions in the plan – such as dredging at offshore borrow sites and the placement of sand on beaches – would require permits," he wrote.

Officials anticipate that most of the acquisitions would happen in Goodland, a small fishing community east of Marco Island, where boat tours depart into the maze of the Ten Thousand Islands and stone crabbers head out to sea to set traps.

When Hurricane Irma barreled through Southwest Florida in 2017, its storm surge caked much of Goodland in a few inches of mud. 

Building elevations outlined in the plan would be on a voluntary basis, but the acquisition program would be mandatory, Layton said. 

"For that we would be working with our non-federal sponsor (Collier County), which is responsible for real estate," she said. "The county does retain the right to use eminent domain."

Eminent domain allows government to take private property for public use by offering "just compensation."

McAlpin said about 90 of the 130 properties considered for buyouts would be mobile homes. 

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For those 130 properties, it would cost more to fix them up than the property is worth or the benefit that would be received, he said.

“So those would be the ones that the county would have to make a commitment that they would address if they were part of a study area that got approved,” McAlpin said.

But McAlpin stressed that the plan isn't finalized yet and Layton said the final number of properties may change.

The concept isn’t unique to Collier.

The Corps’ proposed $5.5 billion plan for the Florida Keys involves elevating 7,300 houses, floodproofing 3,800 buildings and buying and demolishing about 300 homes, the Miami Herald reported.

Gaps in study worry some

The Corps’ tentative plan does not cover the entirety of the Collier coastline. An area surrounding Naples Bay that includes Naples Beach, Windstar on Naples Bay and extends north to 2nd Avenue South, called Planning Area 4, was omitted “mostly based on economics,” Layton said.

Areas where economic benefits outweigh the cost of implementation were included in the study, and areas where costs outweigh potential benefits were excluded. 

“Those areas were not receiving enough damages to justify the cost,” she said. 

The omission did not go unnoticed, and a seasonal resident on Fourth Avenue South, Joe Migliara, has asked the City of Naples to petition the Corps to re-include the area.

“The main issues are the beaches in Naples,” said Migliara, chairman of the Old Naples Association’s planning and development committee. “The beaches are not just for recreation, but for damage control and building up dunes. That dense vegetation holds the beach together but also narrows the useful part of the beach. That area is something to re-look at.”

Shells collect on the sand along the shore of Naples beach, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020.

Migliara splits his time between Naples and a small beach town in southern New Jersey called Avalon, which went through a similar Corps study 15 years ago, he said.

“I have a major concern with this report,” Migliara wrote in a July 31 letter to Naples council members Ray Christman and Michael McCabe. “It seems that Old Naples beaches are being de-emphasized and possibly deleted from the long range programs recommended in this report.”

In turn, City Manager Charles Chapman wrote a Sept. 14 letter to the Corps asking that the omitted planning area be reconsidered.

“The City is gravely concerned that Planning Area 4 beaches and their upland structures are left at risk to coastal storms and erosion, as no beach berm nor dunes are within the scope of the Tentatively Selected Plan for this Planning Area,” he wrote. “Beaches and vegetated dunes are the first defense against wind and wave action in storms.”

Sand travels along a conveyor belt to be spread along the beach as part of Collier County's multimillion dollar beach renourishment project near Park Shore Beach Park in Naples on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.

Environmentalists want more natural solutions

Southwest Florida's unique natural ecosystems provide a myriad of protections to the coast. Wetlands retain and filter floodwaters and mangroves reduce wave energies when violent storms pound the shores.

A statewide conservation group believes the Corps should include more so-called natural and nature-based features into its plan.

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Audubon Florida's executive director, Julie Wraithmell, submitted a letter to the Corps asking the engineers to consider implementing more of these natural solutions. 

"Gray infrastructure of floodwalls, floodgates, and pumps is an inflexible solution to a dynamic problem and an insufficient response to Collier’s multitudinous flooding concerns," she wrote in the letter.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' St. Johns County Coastal Storm Risk Management  project in progress.

The Corps is still considering building more reefs in different areas, Layton said, but there are difficulties constructing them.

"We have to show the benefits from an economic perspective," she said. "We can’t quantify environmental benefits. We’ve only been able to quantify benefits for this study on how much the natural features reduce damages from coastal storms, wave attenuation or storm surge."

In her letter, Wraithmell cites a 2017 study that says wetlands protected shorelines so well during Hurricane Sandy that $625 million in direct flood damages was avoided.

"That same study assessed that, on average, coastal wetlands save $1.8 million per year per each square kilometer ...," she wrote."Natural infrastructure has been shown to provide significant, long-term and cost-competitive benefits for challenges such as flood reduction. For example, (natural and nature-based features) can attract more private investment and potentially lower operating costs."

The Corps is still looking for more ways to introduce nature into it's project, Layton said, but those elements won't be the largest measure.

"It’s hard to find enough green space to construct enough of an area to provide those benefits; to get wave or surge reduction you need really large wetlands or mangroves," she said.

Audubon Florida's letter outlines other environment-related concerns including floodwalls and floodgates potentially exacerbating water quality issues and the omission of mangrove restoration in Naples Bay where the trees have been greatly reduced due to development.

The letter also says the the Corps' sea-level rise predictions "appear to be too optimistic" based on local modeling done by researchers at Florida Gulf Coast University and The University of Florida. 

Splitting the bill

The study first takes economics into account, Layton said, focusing efforts on where the most damage would occur in large storm events. 

“We’re looking at the most vulnerable areas and a little inland to determine where those exposed areas would be,” she said.

Federal funding for these projects typically follows devastating storms through Congress’s supplemental appropriations for disaster relief, but due to the size of this project, the study says there is still a need to develop a funding strategy apart from major storm hits. 

Collier will be on the hook for 35% of the overall cost over the 50-year course of the project (just more than $1 billion), with the remaining funds coming from the federal government (just under $2 billion), the study says.

It’s not yet clear how Collier plans to pay its share of the project costs. McAlpin declined to talk about the financing aspects, but said “there’s a lot of options available.”

“What we want to try to do is focus on what's the right plan and as we start to develop the right plan, then smarter people than me will work on the financing into this project,” he said.

In the Corps’ draft study, the only tangible project with a budget breakdown is beach renourishment, totaling $782 million over 50 years. Renourishment efforts typically focus on adding sand to beaches by taking it from offshore, but Collier has also used trucks to haul it in.

One of the biggest difficulties Layton identified going into the project was finding a source for sand. 

Crews transport sand as part of Collier County's multi-million dollar beach renourishment project near Park Shore Beach Park in Naples on Friday, November 1, 2019.

“Even if we can find sand, it gets more and more expensive as we have to go really far from the project site,” she said.” We’ve been looking at some 20-30 miles offshore and it’s very expensive.”

Due to the large volume of sand estimated for the 50-year project, Martin wrote that dredging was more feasible than hauling the sand by truck.

With such a heavy emphasis on beaches, Layton said the Corps and the county remain dedicated to broader options for coastal protection.

“Even though the beach was the original impetus, and still the original thought for the county, they’ve been very interested in looking at other aspects,” she said.

More than a decade of work ahead

The Corps is nearly two years into the three-year study with the public comment section wrapping up in November. Layton said all public comments will be considered and then the Corps will determine the best path forward for a true recommendation.

The final report is scheduled for release in April 2021 followed by a chief’s report in September. Once the chief’s report is finalized, it goes through an administrative review with the assistant secretary of the Army, then it’s transmitted to Congress. Congress will then decide whether or not to approve the federal funds.

"The last public meeting is tentatively scheduled for next summer," Martin wrote.

One of the more difficult aspects of the project is the real estate portion. Layton said it could take years to acquire all the properties outlined in the plan, driving the construction of the project somewhere toward 10 years. 

"We're going to take it in constructible increments starting with beaches," Layton said. "These projects are never constructed all at once. It’s more realistic to look at a greater than 10-year timeline."

Patrick Riley and Karl Schneider are reporters with the Naples Daily News. Contact them at patrick.riley@naplesnews.com or kschneider@gannett.com.