Editorials

Wake up, South Florida! Speak up on sea-level rise

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Sea-level rise is affecting the ability of South Florida's stormwater drainage system to quickly dispose of water after torrential rainstorms.
Sea-level rise is affecting the ability of South Florida's stormwater drainage system to quickly dispose of water after torrential rainstorms. Robert Duyos / Sun Sentinel

You know the boiling frog story. A frog is put in a pot of water that is slowly brought to a boil. By the time the frog senses danger, it’s too late. Froggie’s a goner.

Well, wake up, folks. South Florida is Ground Zero for sea-level rise and unless we address the insidious rise of water around us, much of our region, our culture and our legacy is going to disappear.

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We’re already seeing things we’ve never seen before: sunny-day flooding, sea water bubbling up from stormwater drains, flood control gates that can’t open because water on the coastal side is higher than the inland side, saltwater intrusion in more drinking water wells, the Intracoastal Waterway spilling over seawalls, drainage canals lapping at sidewalks, gravity-driven stormwater systems hampered by the rising water table, and people unable to leave their homes during autumn’s king tides.

And don’t forget the octopus that surfaced in a Miami Beach parking garage through a storm drain last year.

Far more dramatic change is coming in the next few decades. By 2060, South Florida’s building codes anticipate a two-foot rise in sea level, maybe more.

Against this backdrop, what we’re not seeing is state and federal leadership to address the water headed our way.

It’s a shame really. Millions of residents and billions in real estate are at risk from the threat of sea-level rise from Key West to Miami to Jupiter, but state government continues to do precious little to address the issue. And movement on the federal level has all but halted under President Donald Trump’s administration -- despite the Trump organization’s own at-risk properties like Mar-a-Lago.

But you don’t have to be a scientist to know that "sea level merits special attention" in Florida, according to Ben Kirtman, a University of Miami climate professor.

“There is evidence that at regional scales along the eastern U.S. and in Florida in particular, the sea-level rise is accelerating,” he wrote recently. “There’s no compelling scientific evidence that any of the trends we see will reverse themselves. In fact, the evidence is that current trends will continue for at least the next 25 years, perhaps well beyond... Even if one is skeptical that human activities are the cause of these trends, there is a clear local need to protect lives and property, and ensure economic opportunity.”

We agree.

That’s why the editorial boards of the region’s three major newspapers — Miami Herald, South Florida Sun Sentinel and Palm Beach Post, with reporting help from WLRN Public Media — are speaking with one voice again today.

We want to encourage you to make your voice heard on the need to address sea-level rise — the epic challenge of our region.

Local officials who are paying attention don’t want to cause undue panic, but they need your calls, letters and emails to get sea-level rise on the agenda in Tallahassee and Washington.

It’s not just about the future — though don’t we want our kids to enjoy our corner of paradise?

It’s about solving problems of today. For in parts of South Florida, businesses literally cannot open their doors when tides are particularly high.

Sea-level rise is an economic imperative.

“For our region right now, investing in improved flood management strategies, flood barriers, storm surge barriers, stormwater management systems, elevating roads, bringing infrastructure out of the flood zone — that is the best thing we can do as a region to preserve our economic competitiveness,” said Jennifer Jurado, Broward County’s chief resiliency officer, during a joint meeting of the editorial boards. “It’s not just about avoiding future flood losses. It’s about the daily cost of what it requires to operate here under constant flood exposures.”

We also encourage the Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach legislative delegations to convene a summit on sea-level rise. Let them start by addressing this simple question: What level of sea rise is Florida planning for?

From this, let them develop a shared legislative agenda, as they’ve done with Tri-Rail, or how the region is recruiting Amazon’s HQ2. Keep it short and sweet for now. Avoid the kitchen sink.

Most especially, we encourage corporate leaders to speak up about the peril facing South Florida. Government exists to keep us safe, after all. And as we saw yet again during last year’s push for a new reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, success came only after the CEOs of Orvis, Maverick Boats, the charter boat fishermen and tourist businesses stepped up.

Like the national debt, sea-level rise is a big, complicated and enormously expensive challenge. And like Congress, the Florida Legislature is not forward-thinking. It’s reactionary. It will generally “kick the can down the road” until problems get so big, they cost 10 times more to fix.

But this piper is going to demand payment. Far better if we start making down payments now.

Specifically, we need to address flood standards for highways and roads. We need upgrades in drainage, sewage and drinking-water systems. We need standards for seawalls. We need to think differently about coastal development, about areas that repeatedly flood and about whether our region of 6 million people can truly add 3 million more people over the next 40 years, when we’ll have lost 41 percent of coastal wellfield capacity.

At the same time, let us embrace the opportunity before us. South Florida could become a world leader on resiliency — one whose engineering, architectural and public works projects steal the show from the Netherlands’ floating cities. Let us become famous for breakthrough marine research at our colleges and universities. Let us embrace the future — but plan for the future — knowing our region is going to look far different than it does today.

“It was a pretty miserable place to live 100 years ago, but people applied themselves and adapted to the land,” said Jim Murley, Miami-Dade’s chief resiliency officer. “It won’t be the same place, but it will be a place I think we can adapt to and have the kind of economy we’re talking about. But we have to stay on track, and use our universities and innovative capacity, because we’re going to need all those things to deal with the rising sea.”

What we can no longer afford to do is ignore the monster on the riverbank while we ride the rapids of daily life.

For if like that frog, we ignore the water bubbling up around us, South Florida will be a goner. “The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of the editorial boards of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, with reporting and community engagement assistance from WLRN Public Media. For more information, visit InvadingSea.com

Contact info for key leaders:

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson

(202) 224-5274

716 Senate Hart Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

To email: https://www.billnelson.senate.gov/contact-bill

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio

(202) 224-3041

284 Russell Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

To email: https://www.rubio.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact

Florida Gov. Rick Scott

(850) 488-7146

Office of the Governor

The Capitol

400 South Monroe St.

Tallahassee, FL 32399-0001

rick.scott@eog.myflorida.com

Bill Galvano, incoming president, Florida Senate

(850) 487-5021

420 Senate Office Building

404 South Monroe Street

Tallahassee, FL 32399-1100

galvano.bill.web@flsenate.gov

Jose Oliva, incoming speaker, Florida House

(850) 717-5110

422 The Capitol

402 South Monroe Street

Tallahassee, FL 32399-1300

jose.oliva@myfloridahouse.gov

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