MIAMI BEACH (AP) – April 23, 2014 – South Florida officials testified Tuesday before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that they’re already shouldering the burdens of rising sea levels and they need state and federal partners to do more to help adapt their coastline to the effects of climate change.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was the only member of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation’s subcommittee on science and space to make the trip to Miami Beach City Hall.
“I specifically wanted to come here because this is ground zero. When there’s high tide, there’s flooding. It’s real, and yet some of my colleagues in the Senate deny it,” said Nelson, who added that viewing the Earth from space while he was an astronaut changed his perspective on environmental issues.
Miami Beach, a barrier island with an average elevation of 4.4 feet above sea level, already suffers street flooding from seasonal high tides even on calm, sunny days. Upgrades to the city’s stormwater system to improve drainage and reduce neighborhood flooding are expected to cost up to $400 million.
Miami Beach commissioners voted earlier this year to consider higher tides and rising sea levels when planning projects. Mayor Philip Levine said the city is too valuable to lose, with real estate worth more than $23 billion and tourism revenue over $9 billion.
“Sea level rise is a reality in Miami Beach. We’re past the point of debating the existence of climate change and are now focusing on adapting to current and future threats,” Levine said.
According to a regional agreement to adapt to climate change, the waters off South Florida could rise up to 2 feet by 2060. The state is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels because its porous limestone foundation has the structure of Swiss cheese, allowing water to seep up through the ground and flood roads and outdated sewage systems.
The city of Fort Lauderdale has estimated that it could cost $1 billion to upgrade its stormwater system, and pumps to replace water control structures that rely on gravity, which won’t reduce inland flooding when sea levels rise, can cost $50 million each, said Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs, a member of the White House Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.
Megan Linkin, the natural hazards expert at the global reinsurance company Swiss Re, testified that climate change and extreme weather make coastal infrastructure very vulnerable, and some assets might become uninsurable if their premiums rise too high for consumers to pay.
Some environmental advocates worry that the government’s failure to enforce stringent guidelines for adapting infrastructure to climate change could end up costing taxpayers more money for more repairs after disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy.
“In order for our coastal communities to become resilient, we’re going to have to have federal legislation and federal funding and state funding, but only for those designs that are designed to save the taxpayers from another hundred-billion-dollar hit after the next Sandy,” said Albert Slap, an attorney who has been working with the Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper to try to force government officials to explicitly account for sea level rise in plans for $1.6 billion in repairs to Miami-Dade County’s crumbling sewer system.
Nelson seemed to agree, though he didn’t specify that legislation or funding is imminent.
“The federal government certainly needs to step up and do its part. We need to lead the way and cut down on pollution from cars and power plants,” he said.
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