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Higher Seas Pose Threat Beyond The Coast

Sea-level rise aggravates more than flooding during severe weather; it could have far-reaching economic and environmental impacts.
Carl Juste
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The threat of sea-level rise stretches well beyond the coastline.

Higher seas are pushing into the source of our  drinking water. They could increase the cost of  insurance across the region, and local governments trying to fund resiliency projects may deal with higher taxes and fees. Listen to the full episode of The Florida Roundup here.

South Florida residents are trying to catch up, too. Mary Jo Aagerstoun of West Palm Beach says sea-level rise wasn’t on her radar until 2013.

“My grandchildren, who are going off to college, are facing a dying future,” she says. “Wherever they live I’m concerned that even if we paid attention to the science and we try to move to adapt, it is now really too late.”

Greg Hamra has deep ties to the water. He was born a few feet from Biscayne Bay and says the impact of sea-level rise resonates beyond the region.

“The solutions have to be global,” says Hamra, who now lives in Coral Gables and is the group leader of the Miami Chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. “Whether it’s sea-level rise or fires in California or climate refugees – these are all parts of a bigger problem, global warming.”

The Miami Herald, The Sun-Sentinel and The Palm Beach Post, with reporting from WLRN, have teamed up to address the threat of rising seas. Editorial page editors Nancy Ancrum of The Miami Herald, Rick Christie of The Palm Beach Post, and Rosemary O’Hara of The Sun Sentinel joined WLRN’s Tom Hudson on The Florida Roundup for the latest from The Invading Sea media collaborative.

WLRN: What is the threat to the drinking water in South Florida posed by higher seas? 

Christie: The threat is that the rising seas are pushing salt water further inland – which is contaminating our drinking water supply. It's going to make it more expensive for us to have drinking water in South Florida. Saltwater intrusion is a real problem, particularly in Broward County. I think it's also encroaching in Palm Beach County and even into the Everglades. 

Is this threat appreciated in the scope of rising seas? 

Ancrum: It should be. This region sits on porous limestone, and rather than blocking saltwater, rather than blocking contaminated waters, it pushes west. There are communities in Miami-Dade County, such as Westchester, nowhere near the ocean, that flood regularly. And this is the problem. 

It's the topography of our land here. Nancy, you talk about the Swiss cheese that's under our feet. The crest that goes along the highest elevation in South Florida is generally closer to the coastline and then it backs down slowly as you get further out west. So, the rainwater collects on top flooding and then the saltwater pushes underneath with the freshwater sources. 

O'Hara: Right. It's a real problem. Fortunately, for Dade, it seems like it's a leader on dealing with the issue of well fields. It's a big field full of wells that are stuck in the ground trying to pull up drinking water. For Dade, they've moved all of those out west. In Broward, though, we have not done that. Part of the issue in Broward is that there are so many different city-run water utilities. In Dania Beach, their drinking-water wells have saltwater intrusion. In Hallandale, same problem. The wall of saltwater intrusion in parts of Broward is six miles inland. So cities are going to have to turn to their neighbor and say, "Hey, can we buy water from you?" The problem is the neighbor didn't plan for them. They don't have the capacity to do it. 

When we think about the sea-level rise threat and water, we think about the South Florida Water Management District. You think about the state-level environmental agency. You think about the Environmental Protection Agency. You think about coastal protection. You don't think about your local county or city water and sewer department as on the front lines of sea-level rise. 

O'Hara: That's right. I don't know that I realized that all these cities had their own little water utility departments. Then you get down to the soil and water conservation districts. Nancy, Rick and I are going into our election season where people come in and ask for our endorsements. It's a tidal wave of candidates from the U.S. Senate through the legislatures, school boards, counties, cities. When we finish that work, the call that will come into our phone is, "Who should I vote for for this soil and water conservation district?" Those races are starting to become more important.

Ancrum: Absolutely! I have gone to the election ballot, looked at the ballot, and said "Holy cow! Who are these people? And what are these positions?" Well you know what, they hold sway over this very precious natural resource, and Rosemary is right. We've got to start paying more attention.

This post was updated after the June 8, 2018 episode of The Florida Roundup aired.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Alexander Gonzalez is a recent graduate of the University of Miami. He majored in English and was the the editor-in-chief of The Miami Hurricane newspaper from 2014-15. He was WLRN's digital intern during summer 2015. He subscribes to too many podcasts and can't get away from covering the arts in Miami.
In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.