Miami Forever funds can transform city’s ability to combat sea-level rise

An SUV drives on flooded Brickell Avenue in Miami as Hurricane Irma blows through in September.
An SUV drives on flooded Brickell Avenue in Miami as Hurricane Irma blows through in September. AP

Voters in the city of Miami recently approved the Miami Forever Bond, sending a strong signal that Miamians of all political stripes recognize the reality of sea-level rise and urban flooding — and are serious about combating it. Miami residents also gave city leaders a tremendous opportunity to invest — to the tune of almost $200 million — in forward-thinking, long-term solutions that will reduce impacts to our community’s homes and businesses, infrastructure and natural spaces from rising waters.

As the world’s largest conservation organization, The Nature Conservancy shares these goals. In 2014, we launched our North America Cities Program to tackle the impacts of climate change — including sea-level rise — to our cities, through innovative, nature-based solutions. Given the stark realities that South Florida faces, it’s no coincidence that Miami is one of just 20 cities selected for the program. In fact, the Conservancy is already implementing local resiliency projects with city and county partners. We’re poised and ready to get to work with community and government leaders as the Miami Forever initiative — and its transformative potential — scales up over the coming months and years.

Just a few short years ago, many locals couldn’t imagine the issues Miami Forever now aims to address: extreme king tides that have become an annual occurrence; sunny-day flooding making its regular mark in coastal and inland neighborhoods; and storm surges that can quickly transform the heart of Brickell Avenue into an extension of Biscayne Bay. With such tangible reminders of the changing environment around us, the task ahead is clear. How to implement effective solutions is far less obvious. There is no silver bullet, no one-size-fits-all answer to mitigating rising seas and safeguarding our community, making it all the more important that collaboration and a diversity of ideas are part and parcel of Miami Forever.

As Miami decision-makers begin to formulate how the $200-million Miami Forever bond is allocated, man-made solutions will clearly be a major part of the blueprint. Engineered measures like seawalls, breakwaters, and pump systems all will play prominent roles, although as Hurricane Irma made clear, there are limitations to what our existing manmade defenses can do. Likewise, the city of Miami Beach’s recent investment in major infrastructure to hold back rising waters has not yet yielded convincing results — something that newly elected Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and new Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber both have alluded to publicly.

From The Nature Conservancy’s perspective — and based on our resiliency work in the United States and abroad — the Miami Forever initiative will be a true success only if it augments manmade fixes with nature-based solutions that can help mitigate the effects of rising seas and urban flooding. Establishing new reefs off our shores, planting new mangrove stands along the waterfront, re-nourishing beaches and dunes, and revitalizing coastal wetlands all are measures that should be considered to bolster Miami’s natural infrastructure.

Ultimately, the Miami Forever bond program will be more than just an opportunity for Miami to invest meaningfully in its future — it will be an opportunity for the city’s leadership and residents to embrace natural infrastructure as a critical component of securing our shared future.

The Nature Conservancy is optimistic: Suarez is young, dynamic, and ready to guide the initiative launched by his predecessor, Tomás Regalado, forward to completion. He said as much in his first public remarks as mayor, committing to the creation of an advisory board made up of citizens and experts in his first 100 days in office. The Nature Conservancy and our Miami-based team look forward to contributing to that important work and to lending our expertise and experience to the process. After all, there is no more important legacy for our leaders and our residents than to preserve Miami forever.

Temperince Morgan is the executive director for The Nature Conservancy in Florida, based in Maitland.