Calling all hydrologists and civil engineers — South Florida’s got jobs for you as it seeks to fend off rising sea levels from climate change over the next one hundred years. That’s one of the main messages that emerged from a recent day-long seminar in Miami Beach, where local officials met with experts from Holland to learn how that low-lying country defends itself from an ever-persistent sea.
Another message: Remedies for staving off rising waters along our shores won’t be cheap or simple. But they are necessary.
Scientists forecast that, over the next century, seas could rise from 1-1/2 feet to six feet. That’s a lot of water. And it won’t just be coastal areas that are affected.
South Florida’s porous limestone foundation could increase ground water levels far inland as the ocean rises. Studies have shown that a three-foot rise in sea level would flood western Miami Beach permanently, but also overrun inland communities like Weston. There will simply be no place for the water to drain away.
Some of the Netherlands’ methods for restraining the sea won’t work here in Florida. Oceanside dikes are out of the question, for example. So are mountainous sand dunes, which the Netherlands have built along its coast. Building such dunes here would damage coral beds and raise other environmental concerns.
But, as the seminar’s participants learned, there are some solutions, like Miami Beach’s $200 million overhaul of its aging drainage system, which now leaves major streets and low-lying neighborhoods inundated for days after even normal rainstorms, not to mention our seasonal high-tide periods.
While Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Monroe counties all joined a climate-change agreement several years ago to assess and reckon with the risks of rising sea levels, the Beach is the first city in South Florida to put money into combating increased flooding. The project includes wells to store runoff water, installing more pumps to eject flood water and using “backflow” preventers to keep shore water from backing up into city street grates.
What lies in South Florida’s future? More elevated roads and buildings, more so-called “retreats” from building on the coast, more 24-hour pumps to keep water at bay everywhere, more storm-water runoff collected from urban areas and redirected for irrigation — all feats of engineering that will require big financial investments over the next 50 years.
And government officials in coastal cities will have to rethink zoning laws near their beaches. When an aging Miami Beach hotel is razed, it should not be the site for another high-rise condo, for example, which simply puts more people at risk. It could become green space instead. Better to take a hit on city property-tax coffers than put more residents in harm’s way.
Sure, all these changes in attitude and policy sound daunting. But what other choice do South Floridians have?
Stand by and wring their hands as the underpinnings of beachside condos and resorts are washed away during a hurricane’s storm surge, the tourist industry drowns as beaches disappear under water and a whole way of life is permanently altered for the worse? Those aren’t options.
The folks at that seminar have the right idea: Plan now to prepare and pay to control what the future is bringing our way — higher waters, eroding beaches and more flooding risks. The Netherlands has held the sea at bay for centuries. Now it’s South Florida’s time to face the inevitable and act early to combat this very real threat.
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