First in a series. Read part two here.
The sea started boiling up into the street. A major Miami Beach road was under water. Tourists sloshed to hotels through saltwater up to their shins, pants rolled up, suitcases in one hand, shoes in the other.
But one corner of Miami Beach stayed perfectly dry. In Sunset Harbour, which has historically flooded during seasonal high tides, the water was held at bay last month by a radically re-engineered streetscape that will be put to the test again this week with another king tide.
The design — featuring a street and sidewalk perched on an upper tier, 2 ½ feet above the front doors of roadside businesses, and backed by a hulking nearby pump house — represents what one city engineer called "the street of tomorrow."
This foundation for Miami Beach’s future is actually a complicated and expensive experiment: As much as $500 million to install 80 pumps and raise roads and seawalls across the city. A first phase appears to be working, at least for now. But just one year into a massive public works project that could take six more, it’s way too soon to say whether and for how long it can keep the staggeringly valuable real estate of an international tourist mecca dry — especially in the face of sea level rise projections that seem to only get scarier with every new analysis.
"We don’t have a playbook for this," said Betsy Wheaton, assistant building director for environment and sustainability in Miami Beach.
But in many ways, Miami Beach is writing just that — the first engineering manual for adapting South Florida’s urban landscape to rising seas. The entire southern tip of the peninsula tops climate change risk lists but Beach leaders have acted with the most urgency, waiving competitive bidding and approving contracts on an emergency basis to fast-track the work. Tidal flooding lapping at posh shops and the yards of pricey homes makes a persuasive argument that climate change isn’t only real, but a clear and present threat.
The vulnerability of the low-lying western edge of the "billion dollar sandbar’’ — real estate that pioneering developer Carl Fisher literally dredged up from Biscayne Bay —is topped only by the Florida Keys, where even a half-foot more ocean will inundate large chunks of some islands like Big Pine. That’s sobering when a conservative projection from a regional climate change compact predicts at least two feet by 2060. A study released this month, factoring in new data on unchecked greenhouse gas emissions, predicts a potential five-foot rise.
"We’re looking at fairly substantial, very hard decisions," said Rhonda Haag, Monroe County’s chief of sustainability. "All is not lost. We’re good for the next 15 years but we’re doing as much as we can to prepare in advance.”
Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, along with Monroe, are part of a landmark 2009 compact that acknowledged the reality of climate change — a major achievement on a politically divisive issue. But on the mainland, where it may take a few more decades to see the inland thrust of tidal flooding already happening in the Keys and on the Beach, there has been a lot more talking than doing.
That’s largely because — as the Beach’s ambitious endeavor underlines — rebuilding South Florida to survive rising seas will come at considerable cost. Each Beach pumps runs $2 to $3 million, a relative pittance. Overhauling major flood canal gates and pumps along the Miami-Dade coast could be hundreds of times more costly. In the long term looms the daunting, big-dollars prospect of raising homes, roads, buildings. It will all add up to billions.
Then there are the ripple effects of years of construction, traffic jams and potential environmental damage — the still undetermined consequences of pumping runoff tainted by fertilizer, dog poop and road spills into Biscayne Bay or deep underground beneath a fresh water aquifer that will also shrink as the ocean encroaches. Just trying to coordinate such a massive effort between governments can be hugely complex.
“You look around and say show me a project and we still have a hard time,” said Jennifer Jurado, director of Broward County’s division of Natural Resources Planning and Management. “Part of the problem is it’s not uniform or comprehensive in the approach.”
For now, the effort on the Beach is the best test of the potential for pumps, pipes and asphalt to keep the rest of South Florida dry into the next century.
Old problem getting worse
Any Beach old-timer will tell you the city has flooded for decades during king tides — the same thing happens in much of low-lying Florida. But all the data and tide gauges confirm it’s getting worse.
"The king tides have gotten higher in recent years," said Colin Polsky, director of the center for environmental studies at Florida Atlantic University. "And the king tides we’re seeing more recently have been higher than they were predicted to be."
On the Beach, damage to cars, businesses and homes from flooding — both from high tides and rains — had steadily mounted. "During a flash flood in June 2009, we lost 47 vehicles in our garage," said Ron Wolff, who lives at the Mirador 1200 condo tower on West Avenue.
With flooding growing from occasional annoyance to economic concern, in 2012 the city crafted a bold blueprint for overhauling an antiquated stormwater system that relied on gravity to drain into the bay. Higher tides increasingly backed up the drain pipes and even reversed the flow, turning the system into a conduit to pump seawater up through sewer grates onto heavily traveled arteries like Alton Road.
A new commission and mayor in 2013 has pushed to replumb the city even faster, dropping an initial idea to drill underground injection wells with fewer environmental risks. The new system collects flood waters, screens out large debris like plastic bottles and pumps it back out into Biscayne Bay through one-way valves known as backflow preventers that keep rising Biscayne Bay waters from flooding drainage pipes. The plan also calls for raising seawalls, most of which are on private property, and raising some roads.
The first new pumps, powerful enough to constantly slurp the flooding tide and spit it back out into Biscayne Bay, were installed last year in some of the city’s worst hot spots: Alton Road, West Avenue, Sunset Harbour and Crespi Boulevard in North Beach. They’ve kept roads dry through a first round of fall tides.
But even Mayor Philip Levine, the biggest cheerleader of efforts to "rise above” sea level rise, would acknowledge that pumps alone represent a temporary fix – a 30- to 40-year buffer. If future projections hold true, more roads will have to be raised — along with buildings — as the rising sea pushes up through the porous limestone sponge underlying much of South Florida. First floors might have to be vacated, rusting infrastructure replaced, codes and building elevations dramatically beefed up.
Flooding in other neighborhoods during high tides also makes it clear there’s a long way to go beyond the $100 million first phase.
"We haven’t solved anything yet," said Miami Beach Public Works Director Eric Carpenter. "We’re getting there, and we’re trying to deal with as many neighborhoods as we can."
The scope of work needed even for a relatively small city like Miami Beach, home to about 90,000 permanent residents but far more visitors, is huge, requiring tearing up streets and disrupting traffic across the barrier island.
West Avenue will be raised next. Upcoming drainage work: Lower North Bay Road, Normandy Isle, La Gorce, and Palm, Hibiscus & Venetian Islands
The seawall along Indian Creek Drive — the city’s new ground zero for what Levine calls "sunny-day flooding" — also needs to be replaced. Property owners across the street are responsible for most of the wall, so owners will have to work with the city to make the upgrades. Indian Creek Drive and Collins Avenue are maintained by the state, so the Florida Department of Transportation has to step in. DOT spokeswoman Ivette Ruiz-Paz said in an email that five pump stations are currently under analysis but the agency hasn’t produced cost estimates yet or said when its analysis will be done.
The daunting cost of resiliency
So far, despite the mounting science and the flooding scenes playing out in South Florida, Tallahassee has largely ignored resiliency planning and projects, particularly the costs. Just this year, Gov. Rick Scott — who has largely dodged the climate change issue throughout his tenure — vetoed $750,000 for the Beach’s pump program.
The reason? The project "does not provide a clear return on investment."
Scott might be well served by talking to Beach hotel and business owners. During one of the tidal floods last month, a supervisor at the Alden Hotel on Indian Creek Drive handed out plastic trash bags for guests to wrap around their legs as they stepped down into floodwaters in front of the hotel. The higher-than predicted floods hurt profits.
"We’ve had cancellations. Some people have left early," said Jennifer Hernandez, adding that she couldn’t blame them. "They came here on vacation, and this is what they get."
$400-$500 million is the estimated cost of Miami Beach’s sea rise projects
Beyond the strident politics of climate change, the high cost of re-engineering and rebuilding for impacts still decades down the road represents the biggest hurdle for policy makers and planners. Most notably, Miami-Dade County decided to rebuild an aging and leak-prone sewage plant on Virginia Key — as vulnerable to sea rise as Miami Beach — because moving it would cost an additional $3 billion. It took considerable pressure from environmental groups during Miami-Dade’s recent budget process to get $300,000 earmarked for engineering work to help the county prepare its infrastructure. That’s just money for planning, not actually building anything.
On the Beach, problems were big enough that political leaders were willing to risk raising rates on residents to pay for it. What was initially projected as a $200 million overhaul is now estimated at between $400 and $500 million. The money will come from residents who pay stormwater fees, taxes and — if there is political support — from the state and federal governments.
Beach commissioners raised stormwater rates by 84 percent last year to secure $90 million worth of bonds to start work in the fall of 2014, when pumps quickly went in along the southwestern shore of the barrier island. The cost to the typical resident rose from $9.06 to $16.67 per month.
And those rates will likely keep going up in the future. Bond rating agency Moody’s gave the bond issuance a negative outlook because of anticipated debt in the future, coupled with a need for rate hikes. This could ultimately impact the city’s credit rating.
Though the Beach is far out front, most experts believe the entire region will require a massive investment. Harvey Ruvin, Miami-Dade County’s clerk of courts and chair of a county task force on sea level rise, told a room full of real estate agents at a recent conference that regional leaders need to start planning now and implementing solutions now.
People all over the world want a piece of South Florida. But will they still want it if they don’t think we can keep our heads above water?
"We have too much at stake to question whether we should embark upon this adaptation mission," he said. "We got $6 trillion worth of built environment."
A model for South Florida’s future
The rest of coastal South Florida is closely watching what works — and doesn’t — on the Beach.
Sandwiched between the ocean and the low-lying Everglades, the mainland response to climate change will be far trickier. It’s not just a matter of stopping floods. The region will also have to take steps to protect its water supply — the Biscayne aquifer is one of the most porous on the planet, highly vulnerable to saltwater intrusion. Any flood control measures will also have to factor in $10 billion in Everglades restoration work intended to fix the ailing river of grass that once supplied much of the region’s freshwater and has withered to less than half its historic flow.
South Florida sits atop the Biscayne aquifer, made of porous limestone, which is vulnerable to saltwater intrusion
On top of that, efforts need to be coordinated so that one city’s efforts don’t undo work by say, water managers. A big step will come when governments start changing building codes, something that will take a lot of political will.
“Developers have said to me, ‘We will not self regulate. We need leadership from our government,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who was elected last year and is teaming up with Commissioner Rebeca Sosa to bridge the political divide and move forward on a suite of resolutions Miami-Dade County passed earlier this year.
What’s still lacking, said Levine Cava, who was in Washington this week meeting with lawmakers and the Everglades caucus, is a sense of urgency.
“It’s not so much denial that it’s not true,” she said. “It’s denying the urgency.”
But nature seems to be increasingly making the case. This past king tide, parts of Key Largo were flooded with knee deep water for more than two weeks. One angry resident, a lawyer, is investigating a class action. A recent model by the U.S. Geological Survey shows saltwater intrusion within a half mile of the South Dade wellfields that supply freshwater to all of the Keys.
“We’re getting to the point where we can determine that there are certain areas where certain influences are stronger than others,” said Dorothy Sifuentes, a supervisory hydrologist at USGS’s Caribbean-Florida Water Science Center in Davie.
What that means is that in some areas, saltwater may sneak into the aquifer through canals. In others, it may push in from the ocean.
The South Florida Water Management District, whose pumps and flood control structures play a key role in keeping the region dry and drinking water safe, identified 20 vulnerable pumps six years ago. But with five years of budget cuts, only one pump has been fixed. The district is now in the midst of a second study to assess structures at risk.
“We need to understand what is the true level of service today with this changed condition, and when I say changed I mean land use now —not what they used at the time — and sea level rise. Perhaps the rainfall patterns have changed too,” said Jayantha Obeysekera, who oversees modeling for the district. “Before we come up with the solution. we need to understand the present vulnerabilities of the system.”
Knowing the general threat from sea level rise is one thing. But now governments find themselves trying to nail down the nitty gritty needed for specific changes.
“It is a lengthy, laborious planning process but if you don’t have those types of investments made how do you defend against projects and increasing costs so it just doesn’t seem arbitrary,” Jurado said.
The ripple effects of resiliency
So far, the work on the Beach has succeeded at keeping more streets dry. But questions and ripple effects abound.
Critics of the pumps — including residents who have seen clouds of murky bay water near the outfalls — have argued that pumping water without chemical treatment will cause problems for marine life in Biscayne Bay.
City officials say the murk is simply sediment kicked up as pumps gush water at high pressure into the bay. They also argue the drainage system is cleaner than the old one, now at least screening out gutter trash like bags and plastic bottles.
Preliminary water sampling late last year by Florida International University researchers showed nutrient levels in some parts of the bay were six times higher than before high tides kicked on the pumps, which could trigger toxic algae blooms. Scientists will be out there again on Tuesday, during the next king tide, to test pollution levels.
"We want to know if the waters are good quality," said FIU hydrologist Henry Briceño, who is working with the city to examine the test results. "If there’s any problem, the city will have to do something."
Then there is the nightmare of seemingly unending construction.
The Beach has long had traffic issues, especially on weekends. But the storm water overhaul has made jams an everyday occurrence, particularly in South Beach. Torn up sidewalks and roaring construction equipment have turned strolls to the store into loud, dusty, unpleasant treks.
Building the "street of the future," it turns out, has made for a difficult present for many businesses.
"It was tedious, with the construction, to keep the numbers up," said Antonio Villa del Rey, manager at Azul Spirits and Wines at 1414 20th Street. The sidewalk outside his front door now lies two feet below the road. He was at first skeptical, worried the flooding would fill the lower walkway. But road and sidewalk remained dry during the most recent high tide.
"Surprisingly, the system seems to be holding up," he said.
This is the first of a two-part series on sea level rise. Part two: How climate change affects the make up of South Florida’s water.