Perhaps nowhere in America is the threat of sea level rise greater than in the state of Florida. With three quarters of its population and more than $2 trillion worth of property and infrastructure located along 1,200 miles of coastline,1 the stakes couldn’t be higher.
And, while some regions of the country prepare for projected eventualities, in southeast Florida the consequences of climate change are already a reality: The water is literally lapping at the doorsteps of many homes and businesses during the highest periodic tides of the year.
Floridians have been aware of this threat for decades. Sea level has risen about a foot in the past century – but the rate at which it’s been rising is accelerating, and local officials are becoming increasingly concerned. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), global sea level rise has accelerated from 1.7mm/year throughout most of the 20th century to 3.2mm/year since 1993.2 So, at the current rate, sea level is rising approximately 1 inch every eight years, and there’s no guarantee that the pace won’t continue to accelerate. According to scientific consensus, the answer to that question depends on how much carbon humans put into the atmosphere in the coming decades.
While tidal flooding and saltwater intrusion into groundwater supplies are disruptive and expensive problems exacerbated by rising seas, the frequency and intensity of storms can pose an even greater threat. Hurricanes Andrew in 1992 and Wilma in 2005 caused an estimated $42.3 billion in property damage and claimed more than 25 lives in south Florida alone, according to NOAA’s National Hurricane Center.3
Since these storms, and the near-miss of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, officials have been concerned that even the threat of future storms can have a negative impact on property values, insurance rates and the regional economy in general.
These facts and the daunting tasks ahead are what keep Jim Murley energized. In November, the former executive director of the South Florida Regional Planning Council (SFRPC) became the new chief resilience officer for Miami-Dade County, where he and a staff of five are tasked with leading the county’s efforts to prepare for the likely impacts climate change will have on its people and infrastructure. Murley’s office is located within the county’s Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources (RER).
Job 1 is addressing sea level rise.
In July of 2013, the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners created a seven-member citizen task force to provide “a realistic assessment of the likely impacts of sea level rise and storm surge over time” and to recommend a plan of action. In January 2015, the task force presented its report and recommendations to the board, which promptly passed seven resolutions supporting the recommendations.
Murley – representing the planning council at the time – was a member of the task force.
“The leadership in the county has increasingly understood that, even though we’ve experienced incidents like storms and tides that can be connected to climate change, the long-term issue we’re going to have to deal with is the absolute rise in the level of the sea,” Murley said.
The county’s seven resolutions call for the following actions:
1) Study the use of Florida’s Climate Adaptation Action Areas (AAAs) program. Established by the state of Florida in 2011, the AAA designation is a way for local governments to qualify certain coastal areas for prioritized state funding in critical locations that are especially vulnerable to rising seas and storm surges. RER staff completed the feasibility assessment in September and recommended initiation of the first pilot project in 2016/2017. Since sea level rise is already causing tidal flooding in some areas, the department noted that the special designation can help fund projects already identified as priorities.
2) Implement the county’s Climate Change Advisory Task Force recommendations. Murley said this task will involve updating the county’s GreenPrint sustainability plan and Climate Action Plan, both developed in 2010. These plans identified 137 separate initiatives intended to reduce the county’s greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent of 2008 levels by 2050.
3) Determine what the engineering will cost to develop a capital plan to pay for adaptation efforts. This resolution directs county staff to determine what it will cost to bring together engineering experts to determine the resources needed for flood protection, salinity structures, pump stations, and road and bridge designs. Working toward this objective, RER staff interviewed their counterparts in Seattle, New York City, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., as well as eight major planning and engineering firms. RER is expected to submit a final report to the county board in mid-2016.
4) Continue implementing a voter-approved program to purchase and preserve environmentally endangered land. Miami-Dade is one of 27 counties in Florida that uses bonds and other funding to buy and preserve land for conservation. Murley said the county’s program, which began in 1990, is recently focusing on preserving wetlands that serve as natural barriers against storm surges. In 2008, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that makes lands in conservation exempt from property tax. The county has purchased more than 20,700 acres of land through the program and currently has a balance of more than $54 million in funds available to purchase more property.
5) Conduct a comprehensive study and develop adaptation strategies to address flooding and saltwater intrusion. Murley said the county is interfacing with a variety of experts and agencies to improve its modeling processes, access the latest scientific data, train staff and develop a strategic plan. He said RER staff is working with the South Florida Water Management District, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, the Florida Climate Institute, and the RAND Corporation, among others to help it develop its final report and recommendations later this month.
6) Meet with insurance and reinsurance organizations to develop long-term risk management solutions. The synergies between commercial developers, financial institutions, insurance companies and governments strike a delicate balance that fuels economic development and the financial resilience of communities. The wheels of progress can grind to a halt if property owners can’t affordably insure their investments. In August, Miami-Dade County staff hosted a delegation of 35 representatives of Lloyds of London, one of the largest reinsurance agencies in the world. Separate meetings were held with Swiss Re, AJG and AIR Worldwide, as well as local real estate, business and insurance groups to discuss how the threat of sea level rise will impact future catastrophe modeling and development in south Florida.
7) Support complete implementation and funding for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). Authorized by Congress in 2000, the $10.5 billion, 35-year project is the largest hydrologic restoration project ever undertaken in the United States. It is considered critical to protecting south Florida’s fresh water supply and providing a storm-surge barrier as climate change continues to impact the region.
Outsiders might be surprised to learn that a peninsula known for its beaches, swamps and almost daily summer rains would be worried about its water supply, but Florida’s unique geology and the rising level of the surrounding seas make it a challenge to prevent salt water from contaminating the state’s fresh water supply.
Salt water is heavier than fresh water, so gravity helps keep it below the fresh water supply in the porous limestone that lies just beneath the surface of the land. A system of canals, flood gates and pumps is designed to prevent stormwater from flooding the streets while at the same time preventing sea water from contaminating the fresh water supply. It’s a balance made more challenging by sea level rise.
“It’s a very connected and complicated system that’s very highly managed,” said Nichole Hefty, manager of Miami-Dade County’s Office of Sustainability. “As sea level rises, we anticipate that the groundwater table will become closer to the surface and that reduces our capacity to accommodate any kind of heavy precipitation event.”
Salt water has already begun intruding in some of the low-lying areas of the state and Murley said a few municipal wells have already been closed. Aside from planning to move this infrastructure further west away from the sea, he said water conservation has become a major focus throughout the region.
South Florida gets a significant percentage of its water from the northern parts of the state, and in 2006 it began exceeding its allocation, said Bertha Goldenberg, assistant director for Regulatory Compliance and Planning at the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department (WASD).
“We were in a crisis, and there were threats that all development was going to stop completely in the county.” As a result, the water district began negotiations with the state regulatory agency to develop a plan to resolve the issue by identifying alternative water supplies, developing a water reuse program and ramping up a major water conservation campaign.
The negotiated settlement resulted in a 20-year allocation permit that resolved the crisis, Goldenberg said. “That was a pretty big deal, because at least then we knew where our water was coming from for the next 20 years,” she said.
The plan included a variety of water conservation incentives, a water loss reduction program, some legislative initiatives and an aggressive public outreach program. Combined, these programs have reduced the county’s water consumption by 40 million gallons per day compared to 2006 levels, despite the fact that Miami-Dade is now the 6th fastest growing metropolitan area in the U.S.4
Single- and multi-family homes built prior to 1996 qualify for rebates on high-efficiency toilets, showerheads and faucets, and homeowners and large property managers can also earn rebates on landscape irrigation retrofits. Goldenberg said more than $111,000 in rebates have been distributed so far.
Some of the legislative changes the county has made have included a 2-day per week landscape irrigation ordinance, a requirement to use a certain percentage of “Florida friendly” plants in new landscaping, a tiered water rate structure that promotes conservation, and enhanced water efficiency standards on new construction and renovations. The department also has begun recycling treated wastewater, discharging about 10 million gallons per day as irrigation at Florida International University and as process water at its three wastewater treatment plants.
New leak detection sensors in the water distribution system are also helping to significantly reduce the amount of lost water. “We have about 8,000 miles of pipes in our distribution system,” Goldenberg explained, “so now if we have a leak, it won’t be there for more than 6 months or so, while before it was taking us over a year, sometimes two years to find it.”
Outreach programs include rain barrel workshops, landscaping classes, irrigation and lawn maintenance training, a poster contest at local elementary schools and a popular adopt-a-tree program where residents can receive two free trees per year, she said.
1Florida Oceans and Coastal Council, Climate Change and Sea level Rise in Florida, Dec. 2010.
4World Population Review, 2015.