Deep trouble: How sea-rise could cause havoc in South Florida

Mar 17, 2013 by Curtis Morgan

The maps were intended to show how rising sea levels threaten some of Miami-Dade County's most vital facilities.

If they prove anywhere close to accurate, the fate of three major would represent only the tip of a hulking, hugely expensive iceberg of concerns for South Florida.

Drawn up by as part of an environmental lawsuit, the maps indicate the plants in coastal South Miami-Dade, North Miami and Virginia Key would remain dry in coming decades. But they'd be reduced to shrinking islands as high tides flood land, streets and neighborhoods nearby. It could happen faster than experts predicted only a few years ago - with a damaging two-foot rise potentially coming in less than 50 years, not the next century.

The sobering scenarios were filed last month in federal court by Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, a clean-water challenging Miami-Dade's $1.5 billion plan to repair the county's aging, spill-plagued sewage system. The Water and Sewer Department has drawn up the proposal, called a "consent decree," under the pressure of a U.S. lawsuit and threat of millions of dollars in potential fines.

Critics contend it has a gaping hole: It ignores looming sea-rise that both county and EPA planning policies acknowledge poses trouble, potentially deep trouble, for a region in line to feel the earliest . Miami-Dade endorsed a pioneering four-county compact that calls for adapting roads and buildings for climate change. Last year, the EPA released two reports promoting "climate ready" utilities.

Yet after 10 months of negotiations between agencies, the sewer plan doesn't contain a word about dealing with flooding tides or the sort of storm surge that devastated the Northeast during Hurricane Sandy.

No calls for sea walls, elevated separating tanks, stronger casks for pressurized liquid chlorine or other "armoring" measures.

University of Miami geology professor Harold Wanless, one of five experts from UM, Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University retained by Waterkeeper, hopes the data will open the eyes of regulators before a deal is sealed. That could happen in the next few months, with any agreement subject to approval by county commissioners and a federal judge.

"At some point, and I hope it's this year, Miami-Dade government and everybody has to start truly recognizing that we're in for it, that this is coming," Wanless said.

When it does, it's clear there will be a lot more to worry about than sewage plants.

Brian Soden, a UM professor of atmospheric science, said many communities and residents will be facing difficult, costly decisions.

Miami Beach last year approved a $206 million overhaul of an aging drainage system increasingly compromised by rising seas. Just another foot of sea-rise, possible within 20 years, could worsen high-tide street flooding there. It also would inundate much of coastal South Miami-Dade, leaving a sewage plant adjacent to the dump called Mount Trashmore, as well as Turkey Point nuclear power plant, virtual islands.

"If you look at downtown Miami, where all the new places have gone up, all the new condominiums, the billions going in there, those places are at some of the lowest levels," Soden said. "It's a broader impact all of South Florida is going to be facing sooner or later. Right now, a lot of people are choosing not to look at it."

With sea-rise trends appearing to accelerate, Waterkeeper and its hired science guns argue the county will be pouring nearly $1 billion into rehabbing plants likely to be incapacitated long before the 50-year life span expected of big-ticket public works projects. They believe the best choice is to move plants to more protected inland sites. At the least, they argue they should be built higher and much stronger, a choice they say the county hasn't realistically assessed that would likely add dramatically to costs.

Of particular concern: a nearly $600 million reconstruction of the trouble-prone plant on Virginia Key, where four spills over just three months in 2011 dumped some 19 million gallons of waste water into Biscayne Bay.

Even under conservative projections, the site is vulnerable, a sandy island fronting the Atlantic Ocean where beaches and mangroves could disappear within 35 years. "Why do we want to think about upgrading that plant?" Wanless said.

Doug Yoder, deputy director of the water and sewer department, defended the county plan as a cost-effective approach to resolving the most pressing concerns - orders by the EPA, U.S. Department of Justice and Florida Department of Environmental Protection to repair a system that has spilled 47 million gallons of sewage in the past few years.

With so much uncertainty over timing - differences in projected impacts span decades - Yoder said it didn't make financial sense to abandon the most critical and expensive components. Moving the Virginia Key plant alone, Yoder said, could run $3 billion - five times the cost of an upgrade. Another plant also could be built in 20 or 30 years if needed, he said.

"If you put aside storm surge and just look at the groundwater levels that will result, that plant is going to be still dry after a lot of the rest of Virginia Key, South Beach and Key Biscayne would be pretty much at ground water level," Yoder said. By then, the county would have gotten its money's worth out of upgrades and sewage flow might be reduced anyway if people are forced to retreat from flooded areas.

Yoder disputed charges of ignoring climate risks, saying the issues were beyond the scope of a legal agreement to fix existing problems.

He insisted the county would evaluate threats and beef up vulnerable components as it begins the formal design process. Existing building codes, the toughest in the nation, also may call for added protections, such as surge barriers or pumps, he said.

The county, for instance, elevated and strengthened a building housing backup electrical systems for a recent $600 million project at the south plant - a site that lost power for two weeks after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The EPA and DEP declined to discuss ongoing litigation.

Davina Marraccini, an EPA spokeswoman, said it was important for utilities to consider "all available information - including statistical data about population growth and weather patterns - and apply sound engineering practices." DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said her agency "certainly appreciates the concerns" raised by Waterkeeper.

Attorneys for Waterkeeper, which is seeking to join the EPA action as an intervener and has filed a separate citizen's suit as well, are pushing regulators to exercise stronger oversight of a county they argue has a history of penny-wise, pound-foolish decisions. Despite two decrees in the 1980s and 1990s, the sewage system has slipped into such disrepair that the department director, John Renfrow, last year likened it to "being held together by chewing gum."

Paul Schwiep, a Miami attorney who represents Waterkeeper, acknowledged EPA's latitude was limited under a Clean Water Act primarily intended to prevent pollution. But he argues the agency also can invoke broader "public interest" authority.

Albert Slap, a Key Biscayne attorney also representing the group, said the county and EPA were ignoring their own initiatives encouraging climate "resilient" construction.

"They talk the talk," he said, "but when they have to walk the walk and spend money on climate change, they deny it."

With the county already under orders from state regulators to phase out the practice of pumping partially treated waste off shore by 2027, they also argue that would sharply reduce the economic advantage of coastal plants. But Yoder said Miami-Dade intends to ask Florida lawmakers for leeway and has plans to convert Virginia Key to deep-well disposal underground if necessary.

Leonard Berry, director of FAU's Center for Environmental Studies, said the plan lacked enough information to make an informed choice between renovation or building inland.

"We need that cost benefit analysis to know for sure," he said. "That's the issue."

The scientists aren't alone in their concerns. In a recent letter, Nathanial Reed, vice chairman of the Everglades Foundation and an influential former state and federal environmental official, urged the EPA not to rubber stamp a "defective plan." Key Biscayne Mayor Frank Kaplan, in a letter last month to County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, asked for a "more thoughtful long-term engineering, environmental and economic evaluation" of plans to rehab Virginia Key.

"We're not demanding they move it. We didn't even ask that," Kaplan said. "We just want answers."

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User comments : 16

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Mayday
4.6 / 5 (10) Mar 17, 2013
Has anyone done a comparative costs calculation of buying out all the property in the projected flood zones vs building and rebuilding all the infrastructure? I propose mapping a zone of three-feet of sea level rise and progressively making the area uninsurable over several decades. Some might accept the risk for a period, even buying in as the values fall, others not. Eventually, the gov't would buy out the remaining owners at the future-reduced values. In short, I believe we need to create an orderly system of incentives to move the population away from the sea. Fifty years will pass very quickly.
Maggnus
4 / 5 (8) Mar 17, 2013
At least those in Florida have that option. Imagine living in Bangladesh. Good, sensible ideas Mayday.
Caliban
4 / 5 (4) Mar 18, 2013
The problem, from the perspective of M-DC, although they won't acknowledge it, publicly, is that locating a new facility, inland, on high enough ground to be safe from the sea's encroachment, will use up land that would otherwise be developed for the Top-of-the-Hillers, and take mucho dinero out of the pipeline for the typical greedy real estate speculators and construction companies, whose influence will be used to delay or prevent any such sensible planning.

This is going to be the same problem everywhere sealevel rise threatens, and we will see similar travesties play out, over and over again in the coming decades.

antigoracle
1 / 5 (6) Mar 19, 2013
The scientists aren't alone in their concerns. In a recent letter, Nathanial Reed, vice chairman of the Everglades Foundation and an influential former state and federal environmental official, urged the EPA not to rubber stamp a "defective plan." Key Biscayne Mayor Frank Kaplan, in a letter last month to County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, asked for a "more thoughtful long-term engineering, environmental and economic evaluation" of plans to rehab Virginia Key.

Oh how that must have pissed off the vultures hoping to cash in.
Maggnus
4.2 / 5 (5) Mar 20, 2013
Oh how that must have pissed off the vultures hoping to cash in.


I KNOW! Cause them peeps all talking bout FIXING dem site cause dey all be SINKING and beeing all under WATTER an stuff!Day guy he be FORCING them to RETHNK an not spend dat MONEY all FOOLISH an stuff! Damn GORE he doing ALL DIS! Trying to FOOL US! Sure am glad you be there antigoricle, SHOW hims da TRUTH an stuff! You go gurl!
antigoracle
1 / 5 (6) Mar 20, 2013
Damn GORE he doing ALL DIS! Trying to FOOL US! Sure am glad you be there antigoricle, SHOW hims da TRUTH an stuff! You go gurl!
-- magganusTurd

GORE is only fooling Turds like you, who would elevate him as your Vicar. All the while he is burning more electricity than most third world villages and, to add insult to injury, paying himself to do it through his carbon credits company.
http://www.snopes...home.asp
You go Turd.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (6) Mar 22, 2013
A bit more light reading for the turds - http://www.canada...1307.htm
Maggnus
3.7 / 5 (6) Mar 22, 2013
Aw dang you caught me againstseeing! Gore is my hero!

http://www.imdb.c...0753/bio

You so SMART! All seeing dat way he be STEALING and LYING an stuff! Getting ALL dem SCIENTISTS all PAID OFF and LYING an stuff! An LINING his POCKETS and all dat! No fooling YOU!
antigoracle
1 / 5 (6) Mar 22, 2013
Aw dang you caught me againstseeing! Gore is my hero!

http://www.imdb.c...0753/bio

You so SMART! All seeing dat way he be STEALING and LYING an stuff! Getting ALL dem SCIENTISTS all PAID OFF and LYING an stuff! An LINING his POCKETS and all dat! No fooling YOU!
-- magganusTurd

Why the GW Alarmist ReTurds will win ---

"Do not argue with an idiot they drag you down to their level and beat you with experience." ― Mark Twain
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Mar 22, 2013
I propose mapping a zone of three-feet of sea level rise and progressively making the area uninsurable over several decades

I lived in Boca Raton many years back. The highest elevation is the 'High Street' which is like a whooping 23 feet above sea level. No other elevation for dozens of miles around.

Three feet rise of sea level and that's HUGE areas of Florida gone.
And most of that endangered area is along the east coast - which is the only part that is really inhabited. The cost of buying all that land (and houses, and cities) would be astronomical.
Maggnus
4.3 / 5 (6) Mar 22, 2013
"Do not argue with an idiot they drag you down to their level and beat you with experience." ― Mark Twain


True! No sense arguing with someone who grasp of science makes it so easy to mock them! Besides which, debate would suggest some degree of common ground upon which to base a discussion. You've already decide what you want to believe, so there is no such ground.

@ AP - scarey too, when you consider the whole east coast faces similar problems, although not as deep (lol couldn't help it!) as those faced by Florida. At least they have the money to affect some measures.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (5) Mar 22, 2013
..someone who grasp of science...

.. whose grasp...

Perhaps you should try grasping the English language first.
Maggnus
4.2 / 5 (5) Mar 22, 2013
Perhaps you should try grasping the English language first.


**GASP** OMG!! You're right!

Lol! what a maroon!
deepsand
3 / 5 (12) Mar 22, 2013
Aw dang you caught me againstseeing! Gore is my hero!

http://www.imdb.c...0753/bio

You so SMART! All seeing dat way he be STEALING and LYING an stuff! Getting ALL dem SCIENTISTS all PAID OFF and LYING an stuff! An LINING his POCKETS and all dat! No fooling YOU!
-- magganusTurd

Why the GW Alarmist ReTurds will win ---

"Do not argue with an idiot they drag you down to their level and beat you with experience." ― Mark Twain

An apt quote, one that serves to explain why we no longer attempt to debate the Science with you and several others of your ilk, but simply hold you up to scorn and ridicule.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (5) Mar 23, 2013
An apt quote, one that serves to explain why we no longer attempt to debate the Science with you and several others of your ilk, but simply hold you up to scorn and ridicule.
-- ReTurd
And this is what the science is saying - http://www.woodfo...01/trend
deepsand
2.6 / 5 (10) Mar 23, 2013
An apt quote, one that serves to explain why we no longer attempt to debate the Science with you and several others of your ilk, but simply hold you up to scorn and ridicule.
-- ReTurd
And this is what the science is saying - http://www.woodfo...01/trend

Cherry-picking short term trends is intellectual dishonesty.

Hadcrut also shows these.

http://www.woodfo...80/trend

http://www.woodfo...60/trend

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