We can’t delay the fight against sea-level rise

08/30/2014 7:00 PM

08/30/2014 8:58 PM

Regardless of its cause, sea-level rise is the inevitable, non-debatable consequence of the warming of the oceans and the melting of the planet’s ice sheets. It is a measurable, trackable and relentless reality. Without innovative adaptive capital planning, it will threaten trillions of dollars of the region’s built environment, our future water supply, unique natural resources, agricultural soils and basic economy.

Without such a plan, we invite escalating insurance rates, at best, and risk our very insurability, at worst.

Southeast Florida has already begun experiencing the effects of this reality. With, or sometimes even without, severe downpours, sea-level rise — combined with “king tides” — is already causing localized flooding in some areas of Miami-Dade, from Miami-Beach to Sweetwater.

These events provide a glimpse into the future of what we might expect to experience more frequently and to more extremes. They also provide an opportunity to better understand how to begin to address these effects now.

The Miami-Dade County Commission wisely created the Miami-Dade County Sea Level Rise Task Force as a focused next step to better gauge and plan for what lies ahead.

The task force was provided with prior studies, reports and evaluations of potential effects on vital services and facilities, ecological resources and infrastructure. The task force heard presentations from various experts on topics including a review of county and regional planning efforts, stormwater management and drainage, sewer system, vulnerabilities of freshwater aquifers and wells, the role of Everglades restoration and natural systems in resilience, as well as the serious insurance and reinsurance implications of expected sea-level rise.

The overarching challenge is to secure a future that will be resilient to the threats of sea level rise. Much detailed and truly comprehensive expert analysis must be undertaken in order to plan and design a robust capital plan: not just to update, but in a real sense, to reinvent our urban infrastructure in a timely, sequenced manner to meet our future as it unfolds. Accordingly, the task force strongly recommends that the county begin the process now to expeditiously assemble the relevant expertise needed to develop the plan and strategies to meet that challenge.

In 2010, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties became the first, perhaps the only, neighboring local governments to collaborate on their common concerns about climate change and formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. This format provides a structure to continue to build on.

The task force chose the next 50 years as its planning horizon and relied heavily on the projections produced by the compact partners of two feet of sea-level rise by 2060. This projection has been adopted by all four counties as a minimum guideline for planning purposes.

We must keep in mind that this, literally, is a moving target; sea level is no longer a constant, and as new scientific research becomes available, the projections of the future rate of rise will also change. As we move forward, we will need to keep abreast of new information, and stay alert to events that could have a dramatic impact on the rate of sea-level rise.

The presentation that, perhaps, had the most impact came from the re-insurance industry, putting the issue into a much more immediate perspective.

A recent report by the Geneva Association, the leading international think-tank for strategically important re-insurance and risk management issues, concluded that historic climate records are no longer reliable tools for either risk assessment or rate setting: that "predictive" data will have to be used. Representatives of Swiss Re showed how adaptive planning directly effected both losses and coverage. Clearly, without a worst case scenario plan, insurance rates will continue to climb and could soon become prohibitive, and thus become the cruelest “tax” of all.

In addition to the Task Force’s central recommendation to start the planning progress as soon as possible; other recommendations include utilizing Adaptation Action Areas as outlined in the Comprehensive Development Master Plan, establishing a more structured implementation of prior recommendations and proactive steps to assess insurance issues.

Rebeca Sosa, chair of the County Commission, commendably will be bringing the necessary resolutions forward to implement the task force recommendations once the August recess ends.

Although the need to begin is urgent, we are optimistic that with commitment we can continue to imagine and build a future Southeast Florida that will not just remain viable, but one that will continue to forge its emerging status as a vibrant and resilient world-class region.

Harvey Ruvin is the clerk of courts in Miami-Dade County.

Read the report

Go to miamidade.gov/planning/boards-sea-level-rise.asp to read all of the Miami-Dade County Sea Level Rise Task Force’s meeting minutes, presentations and full Report and Recommendations.

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