Beach Politics and Siesta Key

Sea gull
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The ocean surf, the blue waves crashing onto the sugary white quartz sand, and the lush vegetation and marine life make this beach the most beautiful in the world. Silver streaks sparkle in the crystal clear water carrying crushed sea shells to the shore. A pod of dolphins are playing close to shore at sun rise, to the delight of walkers.
The water is teeming with life, from algae, to sand sharks, to jelly fish, stingrays, sharks, star fish, sea gulls, pelicans, and amazing sea urchins we call sand dollars.
A sudden wind gust picks up a few kites and speeds sail boats gliding on the surface. Fine white sand, skimming like a shimmering shallow river over the ground, covers everything. A brave girl is paddling a board past the sand bars. The sea gulls are diving for fish in the surf, resurfacing with a squiggly silver morsel.
The wind just picked up my umbrella, resting momentarily at the edge of the ocean. I’ve never seen my hubby get up so fast to stop its rolling into the water.
An elderly man is pushing his wife through the shallow water in a wheelchair with large tires. The occasional wave crashes and splashes salty water onto her face; she giggles like a little girl. That sound is the sigh of sheer joy and devoted love.
An Indian family has already brought their mom to the edge of the beach. Her slow gait with the help of a cane is steadied by her daughter who settles her into a folding chair and rolls up her pant legs so she can feel the water lapping at her feet. The daughter brings out a large hat to shield her eyes from the sun.
I seldom see American families bringing their elderly and handicapped parents to the beach; they must be at home or in a nursing home. I feel ashamed and sad.
The beach seems more culturally alive this year. I hear many languages around me, Russian, Italian, Polish, German, Dutch, and French. For the first time in 37 years I see a woman clad in a full beige burka, accompanied by a man in cool and comfortable swim trunks.
I pass every morning by a homeless man, nicely tanned, reading his paper on a picnic table, surrounded by gallons of water, his worldly possessions in a backpack and a couple of garbage bags; his blue beach bike is leaning nearby. He is always smiling from above his readers, makes eye contact, and says good morning to me.
People pass him by as if he is invisible and part of the landscape. A squirrel jumps on the table. There is a short wooden fence behind him, with heavy vegetation and shady trees between the walkway and the beach, and the squirrel runs along the top tier, within inches of his head, as if he is a familiar fixture of the environment, totally unafraid of him.
I make a point to talk to this man and to find out more about him. He is tanned and looks healthy. His name is Jose Jimenez and has been a resident of Florida for 36 years, 20 years in Siesta Key. His English is very good and speaks with a lovely Colombian accent. He greets me every morning with, “every day is a holiday.” This middle-aged man has touched my heart in so many ways; it is hard to put into words. I did not dare ask him if he was homeless by choice or by the vicissitudes of life. He posed for a picture and smiled with his eyes and happy heart.
A few pelicans have flown further down the beach, closer to the rocky pier. The large boulders flanking the pier have disappeared one day, moved by a construction company, eager to start building more private condos despite the local voters’ vociferous pleas to keep the road and the beach public. The issue will be voted on this November 8.
The beach is relaxing and soothing, problems and politics seem to fall by the wayside, but do they? There is always an emergency that needs saving humanity from its own demise, or saving nature from the destruction of all powerful humans. Thank God for the anointed few who know what is best for the rest of us and keep the crony government machine well-oiled and running.
I bumped into the “Save the Siesta Sand” project by chance and curiosity led me further.
A barrier island located on the west coast of Florida in Sarasota, Siesta Key was named the number one beach in 2011 and number one in the U.S. in 2016. “With 99 percent quartz as its sand, it truly is the finest, whitest sand in the world. It does not heat in the summer and it feels like talcum powder on your feet.”
The Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Sarasota have produced a dredge plan which “proposes to remove initially almost 1 million cubic yards of sands from the protective ebb shoal of Siesta Key located in Big Sarasota Pass.” The entire plan calls for “the removal of almost 5 million cubic yards of sand. It is so much sand that it could completely bury about four Empire State buildings laid on their sides. Alternatively, imagine 27 large dump trucks removing sand, running every day for 50 years.”
The sand will be used to re-nourish Lido Key beaches and to build a 5’ berm of sand along its shores, which are private beaches. According to Save our Siesta Sand, “A berm made of sand on a coastal beach and only one side of an island will be useless and will not protect St. Armand’s from flooding. In a little more than a year after the dredge, the North Lido beach has almost been lost and no mitigation is planned.”
“Consider the planned dredge of the protective ebb shoal off Siesta Key. No one can predict whether this same amount of erosion will occur on Siesta beach but it certainly seems likely. Observable facts speak louder than models.”
Following their modeling, the Army Corps is moving on with their plan, ignoring the “repeated requests by environmental organizations and the County Commission to generate an Environment Impact Statement before proceeding any further with their proposal to dredge Big Pass, New Pass, and Longboat Pass. Instead, they are issuing a FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact) by this massive project of navigation, the environment, and Siesta Key.”
To protect the Siesta Key beaches after this massive dredging of sand, the government is proposing the construction of “beach erosion groins,” but don’t worry, they will be tastefully decorated to disguise their ugliness.
In the meantime, as I enjoy the lovely Siesta Beach, I worry that in the future, our children and grandchildren will no longer be able to see the beauty of this island, a paradise on earth threatened by a 50-year government project of “unprecedented scale that has had no public hearings and where the proposer cannot show any similar projects that have met their goals. One independent review that was held stated that they were unable to verify the claims of the proposer.”
Politics at the beach are complicated in the best of times. For now the ordinary beach goer and modest business and home owner on Siesta Key are afraid that they may lose their white sand, spectacular beaches, perhaps the beach flora, and their paradise to the Army Corps of Engineers and City of Sarasota dredge plan.

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