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Will sea level rise still be a concern in 50 years?

How Miami Beach is tackling the problem and what it could mean for the future.

By Ramon Castella, Vice President (Coral Gables, Florida)

Welcome to the brave new world of adapting to sea level rise. Whether you agree with the theories of global warming or not, the facts are clear:  sea levels are rising, and have been for a very long time. At the peak of the last ice age 20,000 years ago, sea levels stood approximately 400 feet lower than they do today, and have been rising ever since.

So why all the fuss about sea level rise now? When you look at the communities that are currently impacted, it’s often an area that has the financial resources and political clout to focus on the problem, raise awareness, and change perceptions. In Florida, our coastal communities most vulnerable to sea level rise also happen to be some of our most affluent.

Case in point:  our client, the City of Miami Beach, is spending upwards of $500 million to address this problem. They are considered at the forefront in dealing with sea level rise and are managing the process in a comprehensive manner. A few of their solutions to this issue include installing new pump stations to replace their current gravity-based systems and raising roads, seawalls, and finish floors. These are all effective responses to rising seas. However, these remedies have also produced collateral effects that have garnered intense scrutiny from developers, environmental agencies, and community groups.

Miami Beach’s new pump stations have generated some controversy regarding water quality concerns in Biscayne Bay, an aquatic preserve. Regulators and environmental scientists are looking at this with a heightened level of analysis, and the public has also voiced concerns about the discolored water discharge into the bay. As the environmental permitting agent for this project, our team has fielded much of this enhanced scrutiny.

Raising the city’s roads, seawalls, and building finish floors has not been without controversy either. When one of these structures is raised, surrounding lower-lying buildings are directly affected – usually to their detriment. Raise a road, and the older buildings around it could end up being at a lower elevation, and now more vulnerable to flooding. Raise a building, and panoramic views (that people pay a lot of money for) will be compromised. The domino effect can go on and on.  It remains to be seen how this cascading series of effects and counter-effects will play out. Successful adaptation will depend on diverse constituents working together to find compromise that will benefit the entire community.

Where do you see the issue of sea level rise in 50 years? Over the past five decades, we have seen many such issues become elevated in the national and local consciousness – the global ice age scare in the 1970s, depletion of oil reserves and acid rain in the 1980s, and the hole in the ozone in the 1990s.  All of these led to study, debate, political action, and technological advancements. These days, not many of us talk about these bygone issues. Will the same hold true for sea level rise? Will the issue be dealt with so its worst effects are mitigated – and it reverts back to a non-threatening constant?

I’m not sure, but I am grateful to be part of the team working on the frontlines for providing a resilient solution not just for today’s sea level issue, but to safeguard our communities in the future.

Ramon Castella, PE, is a vice president in the Water division of Stantec. He’s based in Coral Gables, another coastal Florida city.

Some roads and sidewalks in Miami Beach are being raised to address sea level rise. The sidewalks on the left and right of this image were once level.

Successful adaptation will depend on diverse constituents working together to find compromise that will benefit the entire community.

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