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Fixing Old Pumps To Brace For Rising Seas Could Cost South Florida $70 Million A Year

Climate change projections call for increased rainfall as well as rising sea levels.
Pedro Portal
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Replacing and refurbishing old coastal pumps to brace for sea level rise could cost South Florida tens of millions of dollars per year over the next decade.

In a report to South Florida Water Management District governing board members on Thursday, district hydrology chief Aki Owosina said a review of the 16-county agency found that 26 of the 36 coastal pumps would likely fail to do their job or be in danger of not working. The most vulnerable were in Miami-Dade, Broward and Collier counties.

While new sea level projections mean the district needs to update its findings, preliminary estimates put the cost for fixing them at $25 million and $70 million each year, he said.

"To implement a project like this is not cheap," Owosina said. 

The district is also planning on hiring a chief resiliency officer for the first time, executive director Drew Bartlett said.

The district's assessment coincides with a $16 million review by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of vulnerable infrastructure along the Atlantic coast. However, that review does not include how sea level rise affects the Corps' 1940s-era South and Central Florida flood-control system.

The aging system originally designed to protect about 2 million people is now in the midst of a major makeover with Everglades restoration projects and includes Lake Okeechobee and about 1,000 miles of canals, 720 miles of levees and 16 pumps. Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds said the study is expected to cost $20 million, but could be broken into a smaller, $7 million project eligible for hurricane-relief funding of about $35 million approved last week.

Owosina's report was the first to the new governing board focused primarily on coastal flood control. In the coming months, the district plans to expand its assessment of what needs to be done to prepare for impacts from climate change - primarily sea level rise. It will also have a revised assessment of what's most at risk in the next 16 to 18 months.

Because Florida is so flat, it can be challenging to provide flood control and keep saltwater at bay. If gates are closed to keep saltwater from moving up canals during high tides, they often can't provide sufficient flood control, he said. The district also can't raise groundwater levels to beat back saltwater intrusion threatening freshwater supplies because it needs ground storage for rainfall.

"You can't just raise groundwater areas because it would show up in your streets and swales," he said. "We have these competing objectives that don't line up."

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.