Florida’s fight with sea level rise

Florida beach on a beautiful day

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, many people are dreaming of Florida as a retreat from long days of self-isolation. Hundreds of miles of beautiful beaches, azure skies, shimmering oceans, teeming wilderness including barrier reefs and the Everglades, and strands of picturesque keys and islets. But this paradise is staring down a menace of its own — a rising sea level — and it’s time for a paradigm shift to help us save the Sunshine State. How that battle plays out will have huge implications for other coastal regions across the rest of the United States.

Floridians are experiencing the undeniable impacts of sea level rise firsthand on a daily basis. For Florida’s environment, the signs of danger and damage are everywhere. Saltwater is inundating the Florida Bay, exacerbating an already hyper saline ecosystem and negatively impacting fish stocks and sea grass.

Mangroves, which are estuarine trees that thrive in salty habitats, are creeping northward into the Everglades and taking over critical freshwater habitat that serves as important rookeries for birds and as nurseries for freshwater fish and reptiles such as alligators. In South Florida, rising seas stand to upset the balance between the fresh water and salt water environments, possibly reshaping the bays, wetlands and waterways of the greater Everglades ecosystem.

Florida’s cities and human environments are being enormously impacted, as well. Streets and other municipal infrastructure are regularly inundated on sunny days. Saltwater intrusion is spoiling the aquifers, which provide the majority of the drinking water supply for Floridians. Municipalities of all sizes — from rural Yankeetown on the Nature Coast to urban Miami Beach in South Florida — are planning for the inevitable challenges that are lurking on the horizon as elevated sea levels impact tourism, jobs in fishing and Florida’s ports, property values and the rest of the coastal economy.

And then of course there are the disproportionate impacts of sea level rise on lower income communities compared to wealthy neighborhoods. Sea level rise is poised to devastate poorer communities by choking out their roads, overwhelming their already crumbling sewage infrastructure, and compromising ancient septic systems leading to further nutrient pollution that will fuel harmful algal blooms.

The infrastructure expenditures needed to protect larger and more affluent communities from sea level rise are extremely high – Miami Beach plans to spend $450 million on infrastructure improvements by 2030 – and foretell a very grim future for less affluent communities, one that could include managed retreat and abandonment. Monroe County, which comprises the southernmost tip of the peninsula and the Keys, is already considering abandoning miles and miles of roadway if critical funds are not secured that will allow for their elevation and protection against sea level rise.

Each of these issues posed by sea level rise, taken on their own, is a major challenge. Collectively, they add up to a state-wide, multi-decade emergency. That’s why it is so critical that Floridians, and all Americans from all walks of life and from across the political spectrum, unite to find solutions that will protect our iconic Floridian communities and environments from the swelling threat of sea level rise.

For the first time in Florida history, we have seen the laudable creation of an office for a statewide Chief Resilience Officer, whose job is expressly focused on preparing Florida for the environmental, physical and economic impacts of sea level rise. The need for this job is a testament to the severity of the sea level rise problem.

Florida is seeing climate related sea level rise impacts first, but other parts of the country are soon to follow. Lessons learned in Florida, and meaningful, realistic solutions that are developed here, can be applied to other parts of the country to lessen sea level rise impacts on communities.

Sea level rise is indiscriminate when it comes to politics. It doesn’t care if you’re a Republican, a moderate or a Democrat. In Florida, if you care about the beaches, the world-class fisheries, the pristine reefs and the iconic American Everglades, then you must care about finding solutions that will minimize the impacts of sea level rise. And what’s true in Florida, will soon be true nationwide.

Now is the time for us to act on solutions — real, meaningful, well-funded and equitable solutions — that will help communities adapt, protect municipal infrastructure, restore living shorelines and corals that buffer us against the oceans, and preserve our economically and culturally significant fisheries and traditional coastal economies. We know what these solutions are; we just need to find the will to implement them.

To mitigate some of the impacts of sea level rise, communities in Florida and around the nation should invest in the restoration of coastal habitats such as mangroves, coral reefs, seagrasses and oyster beds. These habitats not only slow sea level rise and storm surge, they store carbon dioxide and provide habitat for fish and other animals.

We must also invest in elevating infrastructure like roads and buildings and rebuilding water and sewer infrastructure. Relocation should also be considered as a potentially necessary step for communities in areas that are too high-risk or where other adaptation solutions aren’t possible. Of course, all of these potential paths forward come with risks around equity and we all need to make sure that any adaptation actions we take benefit everyone.

Now is also the time for common-sense restrictions on continued inputs of carbon into the atmosphere. These emissions have already caused the sea level rise that we are struggling to accommodate today, and if not stopped, will simply outstrip our ability to adapt. In Florida, Sens. Marco Rubio (R) and Rick Scott (R) have proffered legislation that will extend the moratorium on oil drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico — a measure that will protect Florida’s legendary coasts and beaches and will prevent associated carbon inputs into the atmosphere. Rep. Francis Rooney’s (R) bill making the moratorium passed out of the House last September. This, and so much more, is needed.

We are already at an all hands on deck moment in Florida, and the rest of the country is walking down the same path. It’s going to take the collective power of local, state and federal action to win. And if we can figure out how to win here in Florida, we can do it everywhere. Sea level rise won’t wait for us to get it together. The time is now.

J.P. Brooker is senior manager and policy counsel for Florida Conservation at Ocean Conservancy. He was born and raised in Brevard County and currently resides in St. Petersburg, Fla.