7:19 p.m. EST, January 8, 2012
A battle plan for an anticipated assault by seawater has been drafted by four South Florida counties, attempting to protect one of the nation’s most vulnerable regions from the impact of climate change.
Among the steps: Redesigning low-lying roads to keep them above water, restricting development in vulnerable areas and relocating drinking-water wells inland to protect them from contamination by salt water. The plan contains no cost estimates.
Sea levels in South Florida could rise by one foot by 2040-2070 and two feet from 2060 to 2115, according to an analysis prepared by the scientific staff of the four counties, using federal, state and academic studies.
Palm Beach County Commission Chairwoman Shelley Vana said the draft Regional Climate Action Plan is an attempt to adapt early, allowing the region to armor itself against a more watery world as smartly and cheaply as possible.
“The bottom line is we need to have responsible planning in place to deal with whatever the future will be,” she said. “We don’t want to go out on a limb and panic, but we have to be responsible. It will have a much smaller impact on the way people live and what they have to pay to live that way than if we did nothing.”
The plan calls for the designation of areas of particularly high vulnerability, called Adaptation Action Areas, which would have stricter building codes that would discourage development in the most vulnerable places, more spending on drainage systems and other infrastructure to protect property, and the acquisition of land for use as buffers.
It would attempt to reduce the region’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases by encouraging more walkable development, improving public transportation and promoting the use of renewable energy. It calls for assessing underground sources of drinking water for vulnerability to contamination from encroaching salt water, protecting them where possible and replacing those that can’t be protected.
There would be new design standards for roads and bridges in low-lying areas, and vulnerable areas would be assessed to see whether roads should be rerouted. Existing roads could be modified to make sure they’re high enough and have adequate drainage. This could be done in the course of road improvements that take place anyway in areas with poor drainage, except that under the plan roads would be modified for anticipated sea levels rather than just for current drainage difficulties.
“We need to make sure our transportation corridors are functional in future conditions,” said Jennifer Jurado, Broward County‘s water resources director. “We would modify it to provide not only for today’s circumstances, but tomorrow’s as well.”
After that, the plan staff will incorporate public input, prepare a document setting out how recommendations will be implemented and bring the final plan to the four county commissions for approval.
Jon Van Arnam, assistant county administrator of Palm Beach County, who is on the plan’s steering committee, said an analysis of the costs will take place over the next few months. He said there was “no question” that elements of the plan would require “significant public investment” and cooperation by all levels of government.
In Broward County, a one-foot rise would affect property with a current taxable value of $403 million to $828 million. In Palm Beach County, which is generally at higher elevation, properties valued at $396 million to $557 million would be vulnerable.
The climate-driven rise in sea levels has taken place primarily because water expands at it warms, although melting glaciers are expected to contribute more to the increase in coming decades. In the past century, sea levels have risen 4.9 to 8.8 inches, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The vast majority of climate researchers have concluded that global warming is taking place and is caused by human activities. Among the organizations endorsing this view are the American Meteorological Society, American Geophysical Union, National Academy of Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science and World Meteorological Organization.
But among the general public there remains considerable skepticism, and this has generated opposition to efforts elsewhere in the United States to develop local plans for rising sea levels. In Virginia, for example, The Washington Post reports that a plan to rezone land for a coastal dike against sea-level rise generated harsh opposition from local residents who said climate change was a hoax being used by the United Nations to seize land and redistribute wealth.
Tony Coulter, a member of South Florida Tea Party, said there’s a lot of skepticism about climate change among the group’s members but said the issue is not high on their agenda, which focuses on shrinking government, protecting Constitutional rights and lowering taxes.
“A lot of us think it’s bogus science,” he said. “I personally do. Global warming is a natural cycle of the earth. But I’m all about being prepared. Let’s monitor this. Let’s gauge what’s happening.”