Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade County takes reins on climate change

Rising seas triggered by climate change have led to more severe flooding from seasonal high tides.
Rising seas triggered by climate change have led to more severe flooding from seasonal high tides. Miami Herald Staff

Miami-Dade County commissioners passed resolutions Wednesday aimed at tackling the risks of climate change, playing catch up in a region long declared the nation’s epicenter for rising seas.

“People are going to look back at this day as a turning point,” said Clerk of Court Harvey Ruvin, who chaired two different task forces working on plans for over six years.

The resolutions now put the work of preparing for climate change under the supervision of county Mayor Carlos Gimenez and his staff. His first assignment will be hiring experts to look at predicted threats and developing a capital plan to fortify the county, particularly at-risk structures like the county’s wastewater treatment plant on Virginia Key.

No price has been estimated for how much it will all cost. But Ruvin has compared the needed work to a $20 billion plan created by New York City’s former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in June 2013.

The measures help bring the county in line with surrounding governments already working to address threats. Broward County most notably took a lead role in a regional compact, while Miami-Dade stumbled in 2013 after an earlier task force devised a wide-ranging blueprint that included 57 recommendations. Some of the suggestions were included in a countywide Greenprint, but many got discarded during a shuffle in administration after former Mayor Carlos Alvarez was recalled, Ruvin said.

Commissioner Rebeca Sosa reconvened the task force and sponsored Wednesday’s resolutions as one of her last acts as commission chairwoman, hoping to establish deadlines and nail down a capital plan.

To win bipartisan support, Sosa said she intentionally left out any references to talk that human action caused climate change.

“I told [the task force] from day one, ‘Leave politics aside,’” Sosa said. “At the same time, I said give me realistic recommendations.”

The move rankled environmentalists who argued that not addressing carbon emissions that warm the planet and drive climate change undermines efforts to prepare for rising seas.

“Given how much we have to lose, shouldn’t we lead the planet in combating the cause?” asked South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard.

Yet Sosa succeeded at forging unusual allies: the Florida Atlantic Building Association and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce lined up behind environmental groups to urge support Wednesday.

“Miami has been branded with ground zero,” said the chamber’s Irela Bagué. “But we can show the rest of the world through collaboration and action that we can protect our assets.”

At risk are about $6 trillion in assets, Ruvin said. One resolution, based on meetings with representatives in the insurance and reinsurance industries, calls for the county to address expected rate hikes.

In endorsing the resolutions, Commissioner Juan Zapata also warned that the county may need to declare some areas too threatened to save.

“I don’t think we should have a save-everything-at-all-costs” mentality, he said referring to the Virginia Key treatment plant. “We shouldn’t have assets where they don’t make sense.”

Gimenez, who said the administration “wholeheartedly” supported the measures, also pointed out that some work has already been done, including incorporating predicted risks into contracts for water and sewer projects.

In a separate but related resolution proposed by Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, the commission also agreed to support a state ban on searching for oil by injecting water under high-pressure into the ground, called fracking. The practice in Florida includes mixing water with hydrochloric acid to break down the state’s limestone base, said University of Miami geologist Harold Wanless, and could threaten South Florida drinking water supplies.