Dutch share climate change expertise with South Florida



One possible glimpse of how South Florida might survive climate change lies far across the slowly rising Atlantic Ocean in a country where much of the population already lives below sea level, kept safe and dry by towering natural sand dunes, 2,100 miles of dams, dikes and locks and an arsenal of massive pumps running 24/7.

Experts from The Netherlands sketched out many of their time-tested methods for restraining the sea on Wednesday during a seminar in Miami Beach aimed at exploring potential options for a city that ranks among the most vulnerable to rising seas.

The takeaway: If the Dutch have done it for centuries, then maybe Miami Beach and the rest of equally at-risk South Florida can figure out ways to weather the next hundred years, a period during which scientists are forecasting seas to rise anywhere from 1½ feet to six feet.

“It’s not just a threat we should fear and run from, it’s something we can adapt to and exploit,” said Dale Morris, senior economist at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington. “You make lemonade out of lemons.”

For South Florida, that juice won’t come at a cheap price.

The Dutch — who built the most sophisticated array of flood defenses in the world after a deadly dike failure in 1953 — are in the midst of another $3 billion worth of projects and more will likely be in order to withstand rising seas, said Morris.

“The work never stops,’’ he said.

In South Florida, work is only now beginning and in the long term will almost certainly run into the tens of billions of dollars. Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties formed a climate change compact several years ago to deal with increasing risks but many local governments are still grappling with assessing risks and deciding how much to spend on making projects or communities more resilient.

Last year, Miami Beach became the first city in the state to commit serious money to combating sea level rise, putting at least $200 million into overhauling an aging drainage system that leaves major streets and low-lying neighborhoods flooded for prolonged periods after regular rainstorms or during seasonal high tides. The plans calls for more pumps, wells to store storm runoff, higher sea walls and “backflow” preventers to keep Biscayne Bay from spilling out of street grates.

“It’s something we have to act on now,’’ said Richard Saltrick, a city engineer who has directed the stormwater system overhaul.

Wednesday’s seminar, organized by Miami Beach, the University of Miami and the Netherlands consulate general, is part of an increasing outreach effort by the European nation to share its flood-control expertise with at-risk North American cities. Morris said the nation is also consulting with New York City on post-Superstorm Sandy plans, as well as other coastal cities including Norfolk, Va., and Galveston, Texas.

Not everything the Dutch do would necessarily work in South Florida.

For instance, while wider, higher sand dunes form important natural protection, one recent Netherlands experiment to help the process might not fly in South Florida. The country constructed a large experimental sand peninsula into the North Sea designed to let natural currents and waves redistribute the sand along the coastline. Here, such an endeavor would likely bury coral reefs and raise environmental objections.

South Florida’s porous limestone geology also limits the effectiveness of coastal dikes, with the pressure of the rising sea likely to push up ground water levels far inland. With a three-foot rise, studies have shown that much of the western side of Miami Beach would be inundated during high tides — but so would vast swathes of western Miami-Dade and Broward, including communities like Weston.

“We have a lot of people who are building out in the west and they think they’re not in a flood zone,” said Frederick Bloetscher, an associate professor of civil engineering at Florida Atlantic University.

With ground water at the surface, there would be nowhere for rain to drain in western communities, he said. “It’s like filling up your coffee cup when it’s already full.”

The Netherlands also doesn’t have to deal with hurricanes or the threat of increasingly destructive storm surge.

Still, Bloetscher and other South Florida experts agreed the success of the Dutch suggests that much of South Florida could survive sea-rise as a “highly managed system.’’

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” he said. “I feel better looking at some of the Dutch solutions.”

He envisions a similar array of engineering tools for South Florida — elevated roads and homes, storm water systems that would collect runoff and recycle it for home or irrigation use. Like in the Netherlands, it would all require a lot of around-the-clock pumping. Despite a potential cost in the tens of billions of dollars, he believes the public will support protecting property and an economy worth trillions. The costs, he said, would seem less daunting spread out over decades.

“The good thing is, we don’t have to do anything tomorrow,” he said.

Unlike in the United States, Morris said, there is little debate in the Netherlands about the government investing in projects designed to deal with climate change and the threat of potentially catastrophic flooding.

“If you do nothing, people are going to die,’’ he said. “That’s unacceptable. In the Netherlands, it’s a different mindset.”

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