Shrinking Shores and the Aftermath: An Investigative Journalism Series by Eric Staats and Ryan Mills

“Shrinking Shores,” the recent four-part investigative journalism series in the Naples Daily News, took two years to pull together, said Ryan Mills. He and Eric Staats co-authored the series with the first segment being published in the Nov. 13, 2016, Naples Daily News. They told the approximately 50 members and guests of the Press Club of Southwest Florida at the Feb. 2, 2017, luncheon the story about how this series came about and what was involved in writing it.

The beginning came in 2013, said Mills, with a debate in Collier County about the best ways to renourish the beaches. That project kicked off The Politics of Sand. Then, in 2014, there were new leaders, a new direction, including former investigative reporter Manny Garcia and others at theNaples Daily News.

Mills joined Staats on the project in August 2015, and it was divided into two parts: (1) critical erosion and (2) R-Monuments (markers put into the beaches every 1,000 feet, years ago) and mapping coordinates. As a background, he and Staats requested information on state money and appropriation contracts involving beach renourishment. They also asked the Department of Revenue about sales tax data.

When they went to the Florida Shore & Beach Preservation Association Conference on Duck Key in 2015, Mills said “We got to meet other people who are involved with shores and beaches.” After that, they went statewide, setting up a database, making public records requests to 60+ local governments. “We wanted to learn how much money is involved, how much is spent, how much is needed,” said Mills.

They went to:

  • Miami and Fort Lauderdale—did initial interviews with Miami Beach, Surfside and the Coastal Mayors Coalition.
  • Port Everglades—visited the site of severe erosion caused by a manmade inlet.
  • Fort Lauderdale—learned more about the biggest truck-hauled sand project in Florida history. (Ryan said that they particularly looked into truck-hauling because that’s what Naples uses.)
  • Alligator Point in the Panhandle—a rural area, not much money; the beaches have gone away, primarily because they didn’t have enough money for matching funds. (Staats added, “They have pretty much given up on their beach. Bottom line—if you don’t take care of beaches and a bad storm comes by, it can do a lot of damage and greatly reduce the beachfronts.)
  • Cape San Blas (St. Joseph Bay, Gulf County)—deemed the fastest-eroding beach in the state, they have dropped in large boulders to try to protect what’s left of the beach. Hurricane Katrina (2005) badly damaged their beach.
  • Cape Canaveral—they use “managed retreat,” building large dunes to help protect the beach.
    Manasota Key (Englewood, Sarasota County)—the beach is pretty much gone and some of what used to be land is now under water, due to erosion. “This key is important to the Seminoles because of their burial sites,” said Staats. “The folks in Manasota Key didn’t think that they needed to take care of the beach until Tropical Storm Colin hit in June 2016, when they lost a big part of their beach.”
  • Flagler Beach (Flagler County)—Hurricane Cane Matthew (October 2016) hit eastern Florida really hard and caused Flagler Beach to lose a lot of their beach due to erosion.

Staats talked about the difficulty in working with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “It was difficult to get the DEP Secretary Jon Steverson to meet with us; he said to call his press secretary, which we repeatedly did, asking for an interview. We had basically no comments from Steverson throughout the writing of the series.” Mills said that they expected some pushback, but they received none from the DEP or the state government.

“We initially had 20 stories,” said Mills, “and had a window to publish between the Primary and General Elections. The original publication date was to be Sept. 11. Then we decided to have it be a four-day series, and to start it on Nov. 13. We spent a week trying to pull the final drafts all together. It was a lot of work, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. We’re now applying for an award for the series.”

• The state returns only about one cent to beaches for every dollar.
• Florida leaders failed to keep their funding commitment, scaled back their commitments.
• Two-thirds of coastal building permits issued by DEP since 1989 are on critically eroded beaches.
• Nearly half of all critically eroded beaches are not getting state help.
• Increased reliance on truck haul project threatens the program.
• The way the DEP measures for critical erosion isn’t the best way to measure.
• Without beaches you wouldn’t have the tourism and you wouldn’t have the tourist revenue tax and tourist sales tax revenue.

• The Community Forum on Shrinking Shores, after the publication of the series, drew an overflow crowd to the Naples Daily News studio.
• Governor Scott put forth a proposed budget with increased beach funding, statewide.

What about rising water levels?
Mills said that keeping beaches helps to protect against rising water levels.

I’m delighted to see that investigative journalism is not dead!

What about dredging vs. hauling?
Mills said that if Naples wants to use dredged sand, they would need to go to Captiva to be able to dredge for sand. Tucking is less expensive, but if you look at cubic yards of and, dredging is less costly.

Do artificial reefs help?
Mills said that there are reefs out there, already in place, and there are people who feel we should do more of that.

Didn’t Pelican Bay do a lot on its own?
Staats said that Pelican Bay started NPC member Jeff Bruce’s investigation into what to do with the sand from Clam Pass when they take it out. If Clam Pass wasn’t there, the sand would go south onto the Collier County beaches.

What are you working on now?
Mills said that they’re trying to do more of this, trying to build a culture of investigative reporting at the Naples Daily News, involving the entire reporting department.

Photos by Ted Epstein

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