Miami Beach has run afoul of environmental regulations by building an unpermitted seawall, prompting the firing of the engineer who has overseen other city projects to prepare for sea level rise.
The seawall may have to be torn down and rebuilt, further boosting the cost of a sea level rise project that is expected to be $5 million over budget.
Work on the seawall along Indian Creek Drive has been halted while the city sorts through regulatory problems on a project originally pegged at $25 million. The project is key to the city’s plans to adapt infrastructure in the face of worsening flooding as the sea levels rise and climate changes.
In 2016, the state agreed to pay for $19.5 million of the improvements to the state-owned road, and the city would pay the rest. Now, a portion of unpermitted seawall built under the direction of the city engineer could cost the city more. It’s unclear at this point how much more, said city spokeswoman Melissa Berthier.
The problem is a short section of a 75-foot stretch of the wall north of 26th Street, where Bruce Mowry, the former city engineer who was put on administrative leave Friday while his termination is finalized, admitted he proceeded without a necessary permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and instructed the contractor to flout regulatory agencies in its design.
Mowry said in an interview Tuesday that he instructed the contractor to build a straight wall. The wall it replaced had a portion that jutted inland five to six feet before jutting back out, an angle that had to be replicated under state and local permits.
“I don’t build crooked walls,” said Mowry. “The contractor did not take discretion. The contractor did what they were told.”
He added that he takes pride in his workmanship and was not aware of any environmental impact the straight wall would have.
In fact, Mowry also said that none of that 75 feet of wall that was completed has been permitted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps pointed out the unpermitted work during a field inspection in mid-December, but John Ricisak, Miami-Dade County environmental resource project supervisor, said his department first noticed the noncompliant areas in August.
That included the two spots where contractors straightened the seawall’s meandering path, removing potential wildlife habitat in the process, Ricisak said.
They inspectors also noted rubble piled near the waterway that wasn’t properly contained and could be washed into the water by a heavy rain, polluting the water. In addition, mangroves were removed from private property without a permit.
Lisa Spadafina, head of the Natural Resources Division of the county Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources, said her department is willing to bend on a few inches difference in permitted plans. But not a few feet.
“A deviation of four to six feet is certainly not something we can administratively change,” she said.
Mowry is one of the principal minds behind the city’s approach to raising roads, lifting seawalls and installing electric anti-flooding pumps. He said he accepts the blame for the city’s issues with regulatory agencies while criticizing the slow bureaucracy associated with approvals of such projects — a process that he believes unnecessarily lags behind while the city blazes a trail in adapting public infrastructure to sea level rise.
“We waited 18 months on a seawall approval” but still never got it, he said, taking aim at the Army Corps.
The contractor, Shoreline Foundation Inc., and the Army Corps could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The project is a high priority for Miami Beach. Indian Creek Drive was previously a hotspot for seasonal tidal flooding and had to be shut down to vehicle traffic because the water rose so high. It was famously a setting for a scene in Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Sequel” where he and former Mayor Philip Levine, who championed the city’s aggressive approach to completing drainage projects, waded in rubber boots through several inches of water along the street.
Now, part of the roadway has been raised and a new seawall has been constructed, including a section south of 26th Street that received all necessary approvals. The problematic stretch of seawall might need to be ripped out and replaced.
Spadafina said her department has no plans to fine the city because Miami Beach has indicated it plans to fix the problems.
In a memo to city commissioners Friday, City Manager Jimmy Morales wrote the issues came to light during a field inspection in mid-December where representatives from the city and other regulatory agencies were present.
“I am troubled by the findings and the lack of adherence to the environmental polices and regulations,” Morales wrote. “I am therefore closely studying the operations and practices in the engineering division, as well as the contractual responsibilities of our environmental consultant, Stantec, and construction contractor, Shoreline Foundation. I expect to make changes to ensure that this does not occur again in other projects and that all parties are held responsible.”
Morales put Shoreline on notice and directed the contractor to stop all work.
As a precaution, the city is reviewing all of its recent seawall projects for compliance, said Berthier, the city spokeswoman. The Indian Creek improvements were already getting complicated before the regulatory issues were discovered, leading the city to break the project into phases that might not be finished for another 12 to 16 months.
The city is asking the state for additional money to help cover the expected $5 million shortfall on the work. If that money doesn’t come through, the city will reduce the scope of the job.
In Miami Beach’s widely publicized effort to combat impacts of sea level rise, Indian Creek Drive is one of the most highly trafficked and visible flooding hotspots. It is one in a number of low-lying areas in the city where water streams upward through storm drains and over seawalls when the tides are high, even on sunny days. This has become typical during the king tide in the fall.
The Beach is in the midst of a $500 million program to install anti-flooding pumps, raise roads and upgrade drainage systems across the city. An opening salvo of completed improvement projects include Sunset Harbour and West Avenue in South Beach and on Crespi Boulevard in North Beach, where floodwaters have been largely kept at bay.
The city has pushed projects forward at a faster-than-usual pace by waiving bidding when awarding contracts, declaring emergencies to expedite work, and now, flouting the federal permitting process. The pace of the Beach’s work has been informed by a “just get it done” attitude that was espoused by former mayor and current gubernatorial candidate Levine.