Environment

At climate meeting, some rare good news in South Florida sea rise battle

Before Miami Beach installed massive pumps, Alton Road regularly flooded during seasonal high tides.
Before Miami Beach installed massive pumps, Alton Road regularly flooded during seasonal high tides. El Nuevo Herald

At high tide, flood gates installed decades ago on some South Florida canals no longer work. Saltwater is slowly killing freshwater marshes at the tip of the state. And after a recent king tide, one Key Largo neighborhood sat under a foot of water for three weeks.

It’s hard to avoid the doom and gloom of climate change.

But at the annual meeting of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact in Key West this week, local, state and federal officials offered some rare good news.

Around the region, they said, advances are being made in the war on rising seas, and not just in Miami Beach where pumps have drawn national attention.

In Fort Lauderdale, sea walls are being built higher. Palm Beach County teamed up with Lake Worth to replace a crumbling sea wall protecting a municipal golf course with a “living shoreline” inhabited by wildlife. And in Miami-Dade County, new wastewater facilities are being built up to 17 feet higher to fend off sea rise and storm surge.

We’re thinking in the box, out of the box and all around the box.

Monroe County Sustainability Director Rhonda Haag

“We’re thinking in the box, out of the box and all around the box,” said Monroe County sustainability chief Rhonda Haag.

The conference, which coincides with international climate talks that started this week in Paris, gave local officials, scientists and activists a chance to catch up on progress made over the last year. And while they mostly agreed they’ve moved beyond arguing about the validity of climate science, they now find themselves battling gridlock over how to take action.

“We’ve done a lot of work in terms of identifying problems,” said Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers. “Now we need a framework for decisions.”

Many agreed that making progress locally is doable. In addition to its higher seawalls, Fort Lauderdale designated 16 vulnerable areas and is working to make them more resilient through a new state law that provides additional money. So far, they have come up with 38 projects, said assistant public works director Nancy Gassman.

More troubling for members is work that overlaps jurisdictions and political parties. Case in point: In 2017 Congress will review the federal flood insurance program that some worry could cause problems for low-lying South Florida where seas are projected to rise six to 12 inches in just 15 years.

“So in 2016, we better get our acts together,” said Jim Murley, Miami-Dade’s new sustainability chief.

Getting freshwater to South Florida also remains a big concern. Over the summer as a regional drought worsened, miles of seagrass started dying in Florida Bay. Scientists fear the die-off could trigger a massive algae bloom.

The current drought is like the last straw because the entire Florida Bay is in a water deficit all the time.

Everglades National Park deputy science director Carol Mitchell

“The current drought is like the last straw because the entire Florida Bay is in a water deficit all the time,” said Everglades National Park deputy science director Carol Mitchell.

Everglades restoration projects to increase freshwater flows to the region could help. But Mitchell warned that with sea rise, returning the marshes to their historic conditions is now unlikely. Instead, restoration work needs to focus on establishing a pattern of water flow.

“Mother nature will do good stuff if you give it a chance,” she said.

But like climate change, the massive restoration project remains mired in bureaucracy. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the projects last year, but Congress has yet to fund the work.

If the region is to adapt, most agreed work has to be done locally — Miami-Dade officials expect to complete a new climate action plan in February — rather than rely on national or even global efforts.

“The first responders to the impacts of climate change are in this room,” said Palm Beach County Commissioner Steve Abrams. “Ultimately this issue has to be addressed on a local level. The solution will be found here.”

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