If the state uses projections from the Army Corps of Engineers, policy leaders should be planning for a possible two-foot sea-level rise by 2060.
But so far, it’s largely been up to local governments to figure out how to handle higher water.
“Sea-level rise is something that will impact millions of people throughout the state,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. “It’s preposterous to think we wouldn’t think about that, but in reality, we’re not doing a damn thing.”
Pafford thinks the state could create jobs and grow the economy by spearheading efforts to battle saltwater intrusion and coastal erosion. He doesn’t see much on the agenda during the upcoming session. But he hopes to have a workshop among a bipartisan committee of House members, even if no legislative proposals are likely.
“If the Army Corps is presenting numbers that indicate that we’re going to have that amount of water present in a very short amount of time, to me that would signal that the legislature needs to engage on the subject,” Pafford said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to cost money, and it’s not the local governments that are going to be able to handle this. It’s going to be the state that needs to belly up to the bar and begin having a realistic discussion about sea level rise.”
Pafford thinks legislative leaders won’t be convinced to deal with the problem until it’s widely picked up by the media and until they see actual numbers. The waters off Key West, for example, have risen nine inches over the last century. And millions of dollars are being spent now to shore up drainage systems, gates and other structures in Miami-Dade County.
One hindrance facing lawmakers may be their inability to plan beyond a single budget year.
“It limits our ability to pay attention to an Army Corps of Engineers report that says we’re going to have nine inches of higher salt water sea level in our backyards … destroying the economy that has made Florida what it is,” Pafford said.
But how much responsibility does the state bear?
Maybe not so much, according to Thomas Ruppert, a lawyer and coastal planning specialist for Florida Sea Grant. Ruppert operates the website Florida Sea Grant and does extensive research into the effects of sea-level rise and climate change on coastal communities.
WLRN: Based on your research, what do you think can be done from a state-policy perspective?
RUPPERT: I’m not sure primary responsibility is even going to be with the state. A lot of this does have to occur at the local level.
One of the things that I think would be very good at the state level is ... it’s going to get very expensive to continue to deal with this. We’re going to hit a point at which we simply don’t have enough money to do all the armoring, nourishment, drainage and elevating that’s going to keep everybody happy. We’re going to have to make some very hard decisions.
WLRN: What have you learned in your research that you think is most imperative for state leaders to know?
RUPPERT: We need to have some political courage to really act on some lessons that I think we can learn from our own past. Some good examples of that present themselves in our coastal permitting. We have issued an awful lot of permits for construction in places that end up very soon subject to erosion and surge and a lot of other coastal hazards. We just don’t seem to want to realize that it’s not only about how we build, it’s also about where we build.
WLRN: Do you think Florida still has time to properly deal with this or will we always be playing catch-up?
RUPPERT: There’s certainly no time to be as proactive as we could have been. If we would have been doing better coastal management for the past 30 or 40 years, we would have less of a problem than we already do. With the way we have developed in Florida, we have put so many people in such hazardous areas that, that makes it even worse.
Sea level rise … it’s just another way of making even worse all the hazards that we already know – flooding, storm surge, hurricanes. It just exacerbates all of those things.
WLRN: If we’re looking at the Keys, Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, knowing what the models show as far as water rising, what do you think state lawmakers can do to minimize the negative consequences?
RUPPERT: One of the ways we could do that at the state level is by integrating sea level rise into our capital spending. We could be using a methodology like the United State Army Corps of Engineers uses. They have a specific methodology that they use to incorporate sea level rise into their civil works projects.
The corps’ thinking is, "We’re spending the United States government’s tax dollars on these infrastructure projects and we are going to make sure that we are not building them in a way that they are going to be subject to failure during their lifetime due to sea-level rise." That’s something that could be done at both the state and local government levels.
WLRN: Rep. Pafford thinks the inability of lawmakers to plan for more than one budget year is holding the state back from taking steps on this issue. Do you have thoughts about that?
RUPPERT: It’s really hard to see a lot of great political leadership on this for a number of reasons. It’s due to the short turnaround in cycles for politicians. They want to point to some great result they achieved in a short timeframe. A lot of the best things we could be doing – they’re very long term and very farsighted. Politicians are not very well rewarded anymore for being far sighted.
WLRN: Do you believe the Army Corps' projections of possible two-feet or more of sea-level rise by 2060?
RUPPERT: They have three different scenarios, so it’s not just one single number. One of the best ways to think about this is: How important is the infrastructure to you and how long should it last? If you’re talking about a 75-year lifespan, multi-million dollar water treatment plant for a region, you should probably use scenarios that are pretty darn close to worst case because you cannot lose that infrastructure. That’s such a major investment.
We still don’t know exactly when these impacts are going to occur. We know that sea level has been rising; we know it is rising, and it’s going to continue to, but we don’t know how fast. So that’s a real challenge.