By Dave Trecker

What’s our most valuable asset?

Most people would say it’s our shoreline, with its beaches and bays and inlets. A focal point for tourism, it sets Collier County apart; visitors always head straight for the beach. And it provides a weekend destination for the rest of us.

Plus it has financial value. The coastline is a growth magnet for new businesses and new residents, drawing not only from our northern states, but from countries around the world. And it adds immeasurably to the value of our homes.

There’s no question the shoreline is very important. It’s also very vulnerable.

Like much of the rest of Florida, the Collier coast is flat, threatened by sea-level rise and fierce tidal storms. Hurricanes are on the rise, with Category 4 and 5 storms projected to increase in frequency by up to 87% by the end of the century. But you don’t have to wait until 2100 to see the impact. Experts say we could have as many as 180 tidal floods a year by 2045.

The Naples area is particularly exposed. An analysis by CoreLogic estimates a storm reconstruction cost of $43 billion, one of the highest in the nation. And we continue to build along the shoreline, putting more luxury high rises in harm’s way – the most recent example being One Naples at the foot of Vanderbilt Beach Road, now up for county approval.

Short-term measures to deal with the threat are few and far between. Coastal Zone Management shores up eroded beaches with frequent truck hauls, bringing quarry sand to repair the most badly damaged areas. Rocketing flood insurance rates discourage some coastal building. Otherwise little is being done. No zoning changes, no mandated elevation of shoreline structures, no surcharges to discourage coastal building, no steps to elevate roadways or protect infrastructure.

And you can’t blame our local officials. They have a limited budget and immediate problems to deal with, not the least of which is the COVID-19 pandemic. Coastal resiliency is well down the priority list.

But it’s not being ignored. Fortunately something is being done about it. A far-reaching plan is being developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to strengthen our beaches and protect inland property. Driving the project is Gary McAlpin, head of CZM. Sensing the coastline’s vulnerability, McAlpin worked with USACE for nearly ten years to secure funding for a feasibility study.

That study went public in August 2020. Incorporating stakeholder input, the plan will be finalized for review by the USACE chief in 2021 and subsequently sent to Washington DC for approval by numerous committees and eventually by Congress. Funding authorization for engineering and permitting would then be sought. With a comprehensive design in hand, USACE would seek federal money to implement Phase 1.

What does the plan entail? It’s a fifty-year, multi-stage blueprint for safeguarding the shore, with an overall cost in the billions. The plan calls for the U.S. government to foot 65% of the bill and Collier County 35%.

Phase 1 would involve massive beach strengthening – increasing beach width to 150 feet and building dune heights to 10-14 feet – and large-scale protective plantings. Sand would come from offshore dredging.

That would be accompanied by selective hardening with seawalls, groins and surge barriers, as well as elevating and flood-proofing critical infrastructure.

A unique feature of the project is hydraulic isolation and protection of six separate coastline areas. That means taking a number of small bites, each providing standalone protection.

To the USACE’s credit, the plan aims to use taxpayer money wisely. Resiliency measures are proposed only if they’re cost effective. Some areas are candidates for beach buildup and hardening, while others fare best from elevating and flood-proofing buildings.

McAlpin points out the USACE feasibility plan is just that, a plan. Buy-in from stakeholders is essential. Certain elements of the plan may be adopted and others changed. It will be an interactive process. And it will take time to wind its way through the government bureaucracy. Competing with other proposals for the same money, the project will require vigorous lobbying by our Congressional delegation.

While the USACE proposal is our best bet at this time, it could be scuttled for any number of reasons. If so, the county would have to come up with its own design and, importantly, find the money to pay for it.

One thing is certain. We must protect our shoreline and start to plan for it now. The risks are real. Sea-level rise, coastal storms and hurricanes aren’t going to go away.

Dave Trecker is chairman of the county’s Coastal Advisory Committee and a long-standing member of Collier Citizens Council.