October 11, 2012

Florida Scientists and Local Government Officials Urge Presidential Candidates to Address Sea Level Rise

Sea Level Rise Impacts Felt Around the State

WASHINGTON (Oct. 11, 2012) – More than 120 city and county officials and scientists in Florida, all of whom are working on issues related to sea level rise, sent a letter to the presidential candidates today urging them to discuss, at campaign stops in Florida and at the October 22 Boca Raton debate, how they will address rising sea levels that threaten the state. 

Sea level has already risen about 8 inches along Florida’s coast and is having profound effects, according to the letter. “Because Florida is so densely populated,” the letter states, “it is estimated 40 percent of the population and housing units at risk from sea level rise in the nation are here, in the state of Florida.”

“Sea level rise is causing the biggest problems in southern Florida, particularly in the southeast where communities are essentially at sea level and porous limestone allows sea water to penetrate inland,” said Len Berry, a professor in Florida Atlantic University’s environmental sciences program. 

Cities and counties in southern Florida are looking at billions of dollars in expenditures to address problems caused or exacerbated by sea level rise. 

“We just spent $10 million on new wells because salt water seeped into six of our wells that were close to the coast,” said Hallandale Beach City Commissioner Keith London, who also signed the letter. “We’re skimming water off of the top of another two wells because salt water is at the bottom.”

Other cities, including Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, Hollywood and Miami Beach, are dealing with sea water backing up into storm water pipes, flooding streets and neighborhoods. The storm water pipes are intended to funnel water, which accumulates on city streets during heavy rains, into the ocean. But during seasonal high tides, and during extreme high tides -- one of which will occur on October 16 and 17 -- the pipes can become submerged by sea water. The sea water then backs up into the pipes out onto city streets. In Miami Beach, city leaders are considering a $206 million overhaul of their drainage system.
In addition, South Florida’s canal system, designed to help funnel excess inland water out to the ocean, isn’t working as effectively as it used to.  

“The canal system was built on a decline, using about a foot of gravity,” said Berry. “As sea level has risen, more than half of that foot gradient is now gone.  During some high tides the canal gates have to be closed to prevent sea water from flowing into the canals.”

According to the South Florida Water Management District, which operates the canal system, a new pump station costs about $70 million, and that doesn’t include the price of purchasing land that may be needed for the projects. There is no consensus on whether the federal government, the water management district or local governments should be responsible for paying for new pump stations.

The letter calls on the next president to work domestically and internationally to mitigate further sea level rise and help local governments adapt to it.  The federal government currently provides no funding for city and county projects needed to prepare for the impacts of climate change.

“Florida is ground zero when it comes to sea level rise,” said Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs, another signer of the letter. “Residents see this first hand, which is why local governments are leading the way in establishing policies to minimize and adapt to climate change.”

Jacobs has been a driving force behind a climate plan, which addresses sea level rise, developed by Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties. Each of the counties will likely vote on the plan over the next few weeks. Three other nearby counties -- St. Lucy, Indian River and Martin -- are beginning to work with the four counties on climate and sustainability issues.

Problems associated with sea level rise, however, extend beyond southeast Florida.  Sanibel Island, west of Fort Meyers Beach, is losing its fresh water marshes -- home to a number of endangered species -- due to salt water intrusion.  And a University of Florida study documented hardwood forests along the west coast north of Tampa Bay turning into saltwater marshes. 

Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Water Authority, which delivers drinking water to three cities, and the Peace River Water Authority, which provides water for Charlotte and Sarasota counties, are wrestling with salt water moving up rivers that the authorities use as drinking water sources.    

Scientists in Florida are paying increasing attention to the problem. Within the last month the Florida Climate Institute expanded to include six universities working together on climate change issues. The University of Florida and Florida State formed the institute about two years ago.

As Florida scientists and local government officials work to better understand and minimize the disruption climate change causes in Florida, they hope the next president leads the country and world in mitigating it and helping states to adapt.  Students from universities in Florida and Florida residents plan to hold a rally outside the Boca Raton debate at Lynn University to call the candidates’ attention to the issue.

Sea level rise is just one consequence of global warming, primarily caused by burning fossil fuels in our cars and power plants.  As temperatures rise, warming ocean waters expand while mountain glaciers and inland ice melt; in addition, polar ice caps are projected to shrink—all these sources adding more water to the world’s oceans.

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.