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Rising Sea Levels Affecting South Florida

Rising Sea Levels Affecting South Florida

Regardless if you believe in the science of climate change, South Florida is under siege of rising tides. Occasional street flooding in scattered neighborhoods, once thought by many to be a nuisance and part of the price one had to pay to live in this tropical paradise, is now a multi-billion dollar problem across the region and growing.  But, street flooding is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Miami-Dade County has the greatest number of people living at less than 4-feet above sea level in the US than any where except the State of Louisiana.  Obviously, the density of people in Miami-Dade County as compared to Louisiana is significantly greater.

The scary statistics don’t end there. 10% of the homes in Miami-Dade are 1-foot or less above sea level and 20% are 2-feet or less above sea level.  In 2014, an estimate $14.7 billion worth of beach front real estate was located in Miami-Dade alone.  And, Miami Beach erosion rates are more than 100,000 cubic yards per year, not including catastrophic storms.

Miami Beach draws much attention to the street flooding problem because of the problems the city has had, particularly during “King Tides”. These tides occur in October and March when the moon is nearest Earth and high tides are higher than normal.  The city’s gravity drainage system can’t handle the high tides from the bay and the ocean and water backs up the system and low lying streets throughout the city flood.  The city has fought back.  Led by mayor Phillip Levine, the city has committed over $500 million to install 80 pumps and to raise roads and sea walls.  The project is showing success but will take 6 more years before completion.

This is a start, but many believe these types of fixes are only temporary and might last only 30-40 years. At some point, many experts believe, 1st floors of buildings will be obsolete as the sea could rise as much as 3 feet by 2060.  And this does not account for temporary surges caused by hurricanes and other major storms.

Phillip Stoddard, biology professor at Florida International University and Mayor of South Miami believes that as people begin to understand the reality of sea rise, “mortgage companies may conclude that 30-years is too long of a time … [and may] issue 15-year mortgages”.  So climate change has the real potential to not only damage real estate, but to begin to affect the way that the real estate industry does business.

Rising sea levels do not just affect real estate and infrastructure, it affects our very capacity to survive as salt water intrusion into our drinking water becomes a bigger factor than any other issue arising out of climate change. South Florida’s fresh water is stored in an underwater aquifer.  As the sea level rises, salt water intrudes into the aquifer, contaminating the freshwater supply.  Generally, the intrusion can be controlled by raising canal levels, but if canal levels get too high, they flood.  The problem is compounded in a wet season because water management control boards monitor the level of Lake Okeechobee.  The levee system at Lake O is old and weak and to reduce pressure, water is often released from Lake O, increasing the burden on down stream canals, and thus the aquifer.  Other problems such as pollution from the lake and future drought issues come with these releases.  The point is that the balance is a difficult one to maintain and drought and aquifer issues must remain paramount at all times.

Broward cities face sea level issues as well. Some think that Broward may have a potentially bigger crises than Miami-Dade.  Hallandale, Dania Beach, Hollywood and Ft. Lauderdale are all at significant risk.  Lower income, single family homes are in the affected areas as opposed to luxury condominiums.  More than 1/2 of Broward’s wells are at risk of salt water intrusion.  A stretch of Ft. Lauderdale beach, after even a minor winter storm, washes up on A1A.  As such, Ft. Lauderdale is always in the process of beach re-nourishment.  Las Olas Isles, a series of man made islands, are already sinking and streets on these islands flood even on normal tides and storms.  The city is in the process of raising the islands and installing pumps and seawalls to protect the homes.  Again, one questions whether any of these measures will be enough in the long term.

Issues of rising sea levels must be discussed and addressed by government leaders, developers and private citizens if we want to continue to live near the ocean. For now, in Florida, this discussion will only happen at the local and federal levels as Governor Scott has banned the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in state government.  The governor can bury his head in the sand for a while.  But soon, the sand will erode away and fill with water.

David Blattner

David Blattner

dblattner@beckerlawyers.com

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JoAnn Nesta Burnett

jburnett@beckerlawyers.com

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