Raising Florida

Miami Beach is starting to raise roadways to keep seawater off them:

In an area that has seen its fair share of roadwork during the past few years, city officials want to raise West Avenue between 1½ to 2 feet during the next few years in an effort to prepare one of the lowest-lying points of Miami Beach for anticipated sea level rise.

Raising the road would be tied to stormwater drainage and sewer improvements that include installing more pumps to prevent flooding from rain and high tides. The first phase, which will likely begin in February, involves work on West Avenue from Fifth to Eighth streets and from Lincoln Road to 17th Street. This phase would last until August.

The West Avenue Neighborhood Association met Wednesday night with city officials to discuss the plans. Public Works director Eric Carpenter told the packed room of about 100 residents — some skeptical and some more in favor of the plan — that he prefers dovetailing the street raising with the underground infrastructure work rather than tearing up the street several times.

“It doesn’t really make any sense to disturb those segments of the street twice,” he said. “We’re moving forward with the stormwater improvements. What we’re trying to do now is get a consensus from the community that we want to move forward with everything else on that street so that we don’t have to come back later and tear it up again.”

With a higher road, the city would create transitions from the road to the sidewalk that include, depending on the property, a higher sidewalk, steps down to the sidewalk and/or extra drainage components to ensure that no water from the street is draining onto private property.

The first phase of the project will cost $15 million.  A few reflections on this:

  • What about the buildings?
  • Local government officials would have a much steeper political hill to climb to spend $15  million on climate mitigation (emissions reduction) work.
  • I predict the costs of (attempting to) adapt to climate change will mostly be borne locally, be largely uncounted at the macro scale (and thus make mitigation seem expensive in comparison), and will often turn out to be a waste of money (since they won’t work for very long). I hope I’m wrong.

Can we talk about adaptation?

In an example of local action to address climate change, 4 diverse Florida counties have banded together to mitigate climate change and protect themselves against the changes that are already happening.  They’re successful because the impacts can already be seen in Florida:

It didn’t hurt, says Murley, that “we live under constant climate events.” Much of South Florida is crisscrossed with drainage canals, built to turn swampland into solid ground. The canals were built at a time when sea level was lower; now, during particularly high tides, or in the aftermath of heavy rains, the canals can’t drain properly into the ocean. “We get water backing up along the beaches,” he says. “People see that and they ask officials, ‘What’s going on?’”

Rising seas have also begun to have an impact on drinking water, as the salty ocean forces itself into underground aquifers. City planners all along the coast are now laying out plans to retreat from the contamination by drilling new wells further inland. “The point,” says Murley, “is that you can do all sorts of adaptation [to climate change] without using the term” — raising coastal roadbeds, for example, in the name of highway improvement rather than climate adaptation, even though that’s what it really is. The pumps installed by the South Florida Water Management District on some of the region’s canals to handle backups during high tide or torrential rains are another good example.

Planners and elected officials are going to have to talk about climate change, whether they say the words or not.