Lake Worth, Florida.   The Art of Florida Living.

The Rising Tide:  Sea Level Rise

Sea level rise has long been recognized by the South Florida Water Management District and by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an increasing threat to low lying, porous South Florida. With the help of the nationally and internationally acclaimed Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact, climate change and sea level rise are now receiving bi-partisan attention.  Lake Worth City Commissioners Maier and McVoy and Vice Mayor Maxwell recently attended the 7th Annual SE Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit to learn about best practices and ongoing work in other South Florida cities.

So far, the effects of sea level rise have been most visible in Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach, and in the Florida Keys, but even nearby Delray Beach is already seeing “King tide” flooding. Portions of Fort Lauderdale experiences flooding and has built “Adaptation Action Areas” into their planning process. Miami Beach is experiencing problems because of its southern location. Although many other Florida cities and towns have yet to experience damage, scientists and engineers at the conference predicted that within 40 to 50 years, Florida will be inundated with problems related to sea level rise.

Lake Worth, despite being generally higher than Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach, is already seeing effects as well. With higher sea levels, our stormwater system no longer drains as quickly, increasing the frequency and depth of flooding in some streets. Salt water intrusion into our aquifer is another important and growing concern. As sea level continues to rise, salt water from the sea pushes further inland, coming ever closer to contaminating our surficial drinking water wells. Commissioner McVoy noted, “As municipal governments, we have a duty to protect people and property. The real challenge is not whether sea level will rise, but how far and especially how fast will it rise. The gorilla in the room is the rate of melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which would add tens of feet of rise.”

“One thing that I took away from the conference was the blend of scientists and politicians,” said Commissioner Maier, “Sea level rise is no longer a partisan issue. For years, climate change and sea level rise were considered a Democratic issue. At this conference, we had Republican leaders delivering the message that sea level rise is real. We need to be making preparations.” Commissioner McVoy thanked Representative Carlos Curbillo (R) for his supportive speech from the floor of the House of Representatives.

“What is reassuring to me,” says Vice Mayor Maxwell, “is that all levels of government are coming together to address the issues, each within their own individual capabilities.  In Lake Worth, we need to focus on practical solutions and protect citizen’s property and wellbeing while balancing the fact that we must live within our means.” 

What kind of preparations can be made to address the growing problems associated with sea level rise? In addition to looking to other South Florida communities, we can look to the Netherlands, much of which was built below sea level, well before sea level rise became a concern. Sea water there is held back by levees, dunes and continuous pumping. One innovative approach that the Netherlands has taken in the face of sea level rise is to build parking garages under some of the dunes.

According to Commissioner Maier, there are several benefits of building parking areas this way. “You don’t see the parking structure and it increases the height of the dune. One reason that we are experiencing difficulty with sea level rise is that we have destroyed the dune. Dunes typically are 30 feet high. In Miami they are now 8 feet, as a result of over-development too close to the water.”

Another change that many European countries have adopted is to reduce “impermeable surfaces,” including parking lots, pavements, roads, etc. As Lake Worth considers future infrastructure, the City will seek innovative ways to improve.

Policy changes will also play an important role in preparations. Recent development policies in Lake Worth, including infrastructure improvements, have not taken sea level rise into account – but that is changing.  Commissioner McVoy was pleasantly surprised that the Leadership Summit addressed both adaptation--making changes to address upcoming changes in climate, including rising seas and changing weather patterns--but also mitigation. “As 188 countries around the world just agreed in Paris, we must mitigate for climate change to keep global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Centigrade. A big part of that is keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Lake Worth has wonderful opportunities to embrace both distributed and centralized renewable energies.”

“Do we accept the internationally accepted policies regarding new development to protect us from sea level rise, or do we not?” asked Maier.

In 2013, the City of Lake Worth signed the Mayor’s Climate Action Pledge, a voluntary pledge to begin adopting action steps from the Regional Climate Change Compact. Commissioner McVoy says he looks forward to the city adopting quantitative goals and timelines for measurable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, “I firmly believe we can do it and I believe it will make us a leadership destination.”

“We have committed to lowering our carbon footprint - which is a major contributor to global warming -with real investments,” according to Vice Mayor Maxwell.  “We are replacing city owned street lights with energy efficient ones.  This may be a small step – but if this were done by every city in the Nation, the impact would be substantial.  A major commitment taken by the City is the installation of a photovoltaic solar system at the old landfill.  The new system will generate 2 megawatt of electricity and make Lake Worth a leader in the “green” energy field in Florida.”

“I don’t think that it’s hopeless,” said Maier. “But it’s a big deal. Based on the information given at the conference, we will have to make a drastic change in the way that we develop and build going forward. We need to take these concepts to heart.”

Want to learn more?   Read:  The Siege of Miami by Elizabeth Kobert as featured in The New Yorker.

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