Climate change—right here at home     

Dr. Jayantha Obeysekera spends his workdays finding out how to keep South Florida from having too much water in the wrong place.

For roughly the last six years, Obeysekera (“Dr. Obey” to co-workers) has been the South Florida Water Management District’s point person on climate change and sea level rise. Mainly, that means helping cities keep saltwater from penetrating underground drinking water supplies and assisting local governments in protecting key services from flooding.

Like Florida Atlantic University civil engineering professor Frederick Bloetscher, whom I quoted previously on this subject, Obeysekera believes that Boca Raton, Delray Beach in particular and Palm Beach County in general, face less of an immediate threat than Broward and Miami-Dade counties. The land, Obeysekera says, is between 5 feet and 6 feet higher. Also, the main aquifers—underground reservoirs—are less porous in this area than they are farther south. That feature makes it harder for saltwater, which is pushing farther inland as seas rise, to penetrate drinking water well fields. Salt water is slightly heavier than fresh water.

But also like Bloetscher, Obeysekera warns against complacency. “We have to think how we will adapt over the next two or three decades,” he said. “Even a rise of just 6 inches can make a big difference.”

As Congress remains frozen on this issue, however, Obeysekera points to the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, which includes Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. In October 2012, the group produced a report setting out goals for everything from reducing the emission of greenhouse gases that cause global warming to easing the effects of higher sea levels caused by that warming. The counties also produced a 42-page plan for meeting those goals by 2017. The documents aren’t exactly page-turners, filled as they are with references to “stakeholders,” but they offer hope of avoid the worst-case scenarios from, say, storm surges during hurricanes.

Indeed, Boca Raton in particular and Florida in general have more interest and more potential involvement in finding solutions to the effects of climate change than most parts of the country.

One small solution is for cities to add what planners call “transit-oriented development,” which means clustering homes near rail lines, to reduce commuting and thus emissions from cars. Boca Raton made this a goal years ago, and other coastal cities hope that Tri-Rail one day can move its trains to the Florida East Coast Railway tracks that run through most downtowns.

A large solution is for power companies to use cleaner fuel. Every analysis concludes that coal-fired power plants—the main energy source in China and some larger developing nations—emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility with roughly 4.6 million customers, generates only about 5 percent of its electricity from coal. Very soon, almost 70 percent will come from natural gas, which also is a fossil fuel but emits roughly half the amount of carbon dioxide compared to coal.

Few aspects of climate change policy, though, are easy. FPL is pushing ahead with plans for two new nuclear plants south of Miami. The company, which hasn’t made a final decision, touts the fact that nuclear power emits no greenhouses gases. True, but the plants would be very expensive—perhaps $20 billion—and would create more nuclear waste, for which Congress still has not developed a national storage plan.

Locally, the focus will remain on water. Obeysekera praises Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties for their efforts on water conservation. Boca Raton was an early advocate of using treated wastewater for irrigation, even as people worried aloud that they could get sick from sprinklers at Mizner Park. Bloetscher says that for Boca, Delray and other coastal cities another issue will be “access”—to roads and sewer systems during floods.

“Dr. Obey” does not minimize the challenge, but he also is not a pessimist. With enough effort in the right places, Boca Raton and the state can rise to the challenge of rising seas.

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Delray city attorney candidate off to Coconut Creek?

Terrell Pyburn, the interim city attorney for Delray Beach, has announced her resignation according to a city spokeswoman. Sources tell us that Pyburn is expected to accept an offer to become city attorney in Coconut Creek.

Wednesday night, the city commission in Coconut Creek—a northwest Broward County city of about 55,000—voted unanimously to offer Pyburn the job, though there is not yet a contract.

Pyburn was one of four candidates for the permanent job in Delray Beach. She had been the interim attorney since January, when Brian Shutt resigned to work for a private firm in West Palm Beach (Pyburn was assistant city attorney under Shutt). The Delray Beach commission will interview city attorney candidates June 3-4 and probably decide immediately after the interviews are done. 

I will have much more on this issue in next Tuesday’s post.

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Everglades restoration hung out to dry

One key part of South Florida’s water/climate change strategy is Everglades restoration, the $10-billion plus effort that seeks, among other things, to redirect excess rainfall inland from the coast, rather than have that water just flow into the ocean.

So it was beyond disappointing to hear this week that the U.S. House approved a water projects bill that does not include the Central Everglades Planning Project, a key part of Everglades restoration. The Army Corps of Engineers, which must review all such projects, said there was not enough time to do so and get the project into the House bill. Though the Corps may bless the project as early as Friday, the Senate is set to vote on the water bill today, and it is unlikely that there would be any changes.

An official with Audubon of Florida notes, correctly, the Everglades still is “the largest environmental beneficiary” of the bill, which authorizes projects. Spending approval must come later. But it has been seven years since the last water bill, which came seven years after the preceding one. If Congress can return to its historic pattern of passing water bills every two years, the delay for this Everglades project will not be terrible. That’s another reason to wish for a less dysfunctional Congress.

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If you build it…?                                                       

A decade ago, during the real estate boom, then-West Palm Beach mayor Lois Frankel—now U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel—touted all the condo towers rising in the city’s downtown. Just imagine, Frankel and other city leaders said, all the economic benefits from those new residents.

But a lot of those condos were bought to flip, not live in. Then the real estate market went bust. Now private investors are buying up many of those condos. All of which makes it hard to tell whether West Palm Beach will get all those new downtown residents merchants were hoping for.

Which brings us to Boca Raton, and its own approval of residential projects to create a busier downtown. Approval of those projects—notably Archstone, on East Palmetto Park Road—supposedly persuaded Trader Joe’s last summer to commit to the company’s store that will anchor the East City Center complex rising on South Federal Highway at Eighth Avenue.

How, though, can Boca Raton avoid becoming like West Palm, where there are many new towers but not enough new, actual residents?

Mayor Susan Haynie says things will be different in Boca because the type of housing is different. Of the three big downtown projects—Camden, Tower One Fifty Five and Archstone—only Tower One Fifty Five is condos. Camden and Archstone are luxury rentals. You don’t flip a rental.

For sure, rental projects have driven much of the post-bust residential building because that’s where the financing has been. It’s why Atlantic Crossing in Delray has so many housing units. One hopes Haynie is right. Boca Raton has bet a lot on the idea that if you build it, they will come.

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The Scott Wilson case   

One of the saddest—that’s just one possible description—cases ever in Palm Beach County staggers on, as of Wednesday.

The 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that the cremated ashes of Scott Wilson cannot be divided between his parents, Lili Wilson and William Wilson. Each has a Boca Raton attorney—Amy Beller for Lili Wilson, Joy Bartman for William Wilson.

The Wilsons’ son, Scott Wilson, was killed four years ago at age 23 when Wellington polo club owner John Goodman’s Bentley rammed his car. Goodman’s second trial on charges of DUI manslaughter and failing to render aid starts Oct. 6. Goodman was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to 16 years, but the judge ordered a new trial because of juror misconduct.

Lili and William Wilson divorced before their son’s death. They sued Goodman, and got $46 million, which they split. As the probate judge and now the appeals court have ruled, however, cremated remains cannot be divided so easily. Lili Wilson wants to bury the ashes here. William Wilson wants to bury them in Georgia, and asked the courts to rule that he get his. . .share.

The appellate court’s ruling should settle the legal question. Why this issue got into the courts in the first place is the real question.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.