New plan calls for Miami-Dade mayor to take reins on sea rise

Members of the environmental groups Greenpeace and Project Hotseat rallied on the beach in Dania in November 2006 to raise awareness about climate change.
Members of the environmental groups Greenpeace and Project Hotseat rallied on the beach in Dania in November 2006 to raise awareness about climate change. © 2006 Robert Visser/Greenpeace

Miami-Dade County’s task force on rising seas wants the county mayor to take the reins on the mounting problem and will propose a suite of resolutions before commissioners on Wednesday to address the issue.

The measures will serve as “marching orders” to increase the county’s response to sea rise, County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said during a meeting with Miami Herald editors last week. She sponsored the legislation carrying out the task force recommendations as one of her last acts as commission chairwoman.

The resolutions ask Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez to take formal oversight and dedicate staff and resources to shepherd the county’s attack on climate change. One resolution would also ask the administration to speed up the planning process by hiring engineers or other experts to develop a capital plan to fortify the county’s vast infrastructure against the dangers of sea rise — everything from roads to bridges to sewer structures. Another resolution also calls for a comprehensive study on flooding and saltwater intrusion along with a time frame for carrying out changes and source of money.

“Sea level rise is happening. And failure to plan is the same as planning to fail,” said Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin, who chaired the task force.

Ruvin and Sosa could not say how much a plan or necessary changes might cost. But a similar strategy for New York City unveiled in June 2013 by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg came with a $20 billion price tag.

While the resolutions ask the county to incorporate measures to adapt to rising sea levels, they provide no specific changes to zoning or building regulations that could make building in the region more expensive. Sosa, who wants to avoid the politically divisive issue of what causes climate change, said the county needs to first lay the groundwork and not risk stirring opposition.

“We have to be careful about the way we take baby steps,” she said.

But at some point, the commission will have to take “some pretty hard-headed action,” Ruvin said.

The task force is the county’s second stab at tackling climate change. An earlier group that included architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and former Everglades National Park Superintendent Dan Kimball delivered dozens of recommendations after meeting over five years. But the group’s report came just as voters ousted former Mayor Carlos Alvarez in a recall election. Many of the recommendations, Ruvin said, got lost in the shuffle.

The new recommendations build largely on the work of the former task force, he said.

The latest group relied on predictions that seas off Florida would rise two feet by 2060, but cautioned that levels are a “moving target.” Harvard University researchers published a new study this month recalculating the rates of increase and found seas have risen 25 percent faster in the last two decades than previously thought. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which predicts rates for the United Nations, said the results would not likely change predictions for a three-foot rise by 2100.

But in low-lying South Florida, even a few millimeters can make a difference, something insurers are keenly watching. In one resolution, Sosa will ask the administration to meet with insurers and come up with a long-range plan.

“If we don’t address this, this will prevent — at some point — people from coming,” Sosa said.

Another resolution asks the mayor to find more ways to pay for the county’s Environmentally Endangered Lands program, which raised $80 million through a tax referendum and bond more than a decade ago. Preserving sensitive lands would help boost the natural plumbing that historically helped South Florida cope with its low elevation. The program has resulted in the purchase of more than 20,700 acres and manages another 2,800 acres, but it is running out of money.

While Miami-Dade County is not the most populated region at risk, it does have the highest value in property and buildings, Ruvin said.

“The water table is the problem,” he said. “It threatens everything.”

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