Environment

Most people try to avoid king tide flooding. These volunteers wade right into the water.

Water gushed out of storm drains, reclaimed backyards and rose so high in one neighborhood Sunday that someone posted a “No Wake Zone” sign on the street. Sunday’s king tide made a splash as it peaked in the morning, flooding low-lying roads and property across Southeast Florida.

While most people tried to steer clear of the swamps, a group of volunteers waded right into the flooding as part of Sea Level Solutions Day, hosted by Florida International University (FIU). The event aimed to measure water depth and quality during Miami-Dade County king tides when lunar cycles result in exceptionally high tidal flows. The information will be added to related data FIU has compiled since 2015.

“We are trying to improve the information we have about tidal flooding so that we can help drive the decision-making and policy-making to help provide solutions for Miami,” said Tiffany Troxler, director of science for Florida International University’s Sea Level Solution Center.

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FIU Associate Director of Science Doctor Tiffany Troxler collects samples from the flood waters to test for a variety of factors during the King Tide on citizens’ Sea Level Solution day where scientists and citizens go around measuring the high tides around the city, off West Fairview street in Coconut Grove, Florida on Sunday, September 29, 2019. Daniel A. Varela dvarela@miamiherald.com

About 50 volunteers began their day at the Vizcaya Village south of downtown Miami, where they learned how to properly analyze and collect water measurements and samples. When tidal water floods urban neighborhoods, the water can absorb lawn fertilizers and other contaminants that are then swept back into Biscayne Bay, Troxler said.

And because much of the flooding water flows out of storm drains or even from Miami-Dade’s 100,000 plus septic tank fields, the samples also reveal if toxins are carried in with the flooding. Septic tanks leak when saturated by rising sea and groundwater levels — exacerbated during king tides — and contamination is becoming a major problem across Miami-Dade, according to a recent county study.

Armed with tool boxes stocked with tape measurers, vials and pipettes, the volunteers split off into 18 different groups to take their first measurements by 9:30 a.m., an hour before the peak of the king tide. They input their data and photo documentation into an app that allowed the results to be tracked and compiled on a map in real time.

On South Bayshore Lane in Coconut Grove, the tide’s peak rose more than 10 inches above the road. Annoyed passerby edged warily along the strips of elevated land and obstinate drivers plowed their cars through the corrosive salt water. A sea wall beside a nearby marina barely restrained water from flowing onto the street.

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Research Development Officer at the Institute of Water and Environment at FIU Maria Fernanda Pulido-Velosa, 24, left, FIU student of Engineering and Computing Nathalie Tuya, 21, FIU Dept. of Art & Art History faculty member Fereshteh Toosi, 43, and FIU Masters student in Executive Public Administration Robin Meneses, 27 measure the water levels associated with the King Tide during citizens’ Sea Level Solution day where scientists and citizens go around measuring the high tides around the city, off West Fairview street in Coconut Grove, Florida on Sunday, September 29, 2019. Daniel A. Varela dvarela@miamiherald.com

Robbin Meneses, 27 and his three FIU group mates — an environmental engineering student, an administrator and an Art History professor — carefully documented area measurements.

Meneses had volunteered at the event last year as well, and said he hoped the data would push local officials to take more action to mitigate flooding, especially in communities with the fewest resources.

“We should always do more, be more proactive instead of reactive, especially right now with what we are facing” with sea-level rise, said Meneses, who is completing a master’s degree in executive public administration at FIU. “It’s very important for us in Miami-Dade County, as residents, to come together and be self-advocates for our own backyard to really find the solutions and be resilient together.”

Group members took turns peering through a refractometer to gauge the salinity in the water emerging from a nearby storm drain. They found the sample had almost the same concentration of salt as pure sea water. Measuring salinity helps indicate the source of the water — in this case, probably bay water that pushed its way out through the storm drain.

“Our draining system — which was designed for gravity to drain rainwater from the streets to the bay — has been compromised,” said Jim Murley, chief resilience officer for Miami-Dade County. Sea level rise combined with increasingly high tides means seawater from the bay now comes out of the storm water collection system and onto the streets, instead of the other way around.

“That’s not what it was designed for,” Murley added.

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A storm drain overflows as elevated water levels from the morning’s King Tide peak surge off West Fairview street in Coconut Grove, Florida on September 29, 2019. Daniel A. Varela dvarela@miamiherald.com

To combat the growing problem, the county and flood-prone cities like Miami Beach and Miami have added pumps to remove flooding and tidal valves to block seawater from rising back up storm drains.

Since Hurricane Irma in 2017, Miami has installed almost 40 tidal valves and Miami Beach has invested over $100 million into anti-flooding efforts. But these areas still flood during king tides, and Miami still has around 330 storm drains that can flood during regular high tides.

Volunteers participating in Sea Level Solutions day are making it easier for local officials to plan mitigation, Murley said. Many of the studies and much of the data surrounding climate change arises from international research and broader, global projections.

“We can gain a lot out of that,” Murley said. “But we have some unique situations in southeast Florida. When the citizen scientists are out there, they are getting us data from our region itself, what’s really happening here.”

By developing a baseline of flooding conditions, the data will also provide a way for citizens to hold their local officials accountable, Troxler said.

“As local and state governments begin to develop and implement adaptation solutions, we can measure the benefits of those solutions in terms of the reduced amount of flooding we’re seeing and the quality of water in places like Biscayne Bay,” Dr. Troxler explained.

For residents of South Bayshore Lane like Daniel Diaz Luna, solutions to mitigate the flooding could not come soon enough. The city of Miami has planned to put in a pumping station on his street, Diaz Luna said, but it hasn’t yet been installed. Diaz Luna has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years and has grown wary of water submerging his dock and inundating his backyard, which sits exactly at sea level.

“Every year, it’s been progressing,” he said. “Every year it is more dangerous.”

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