Is South Florida in Hot Water?

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Boca Raton examines the rising tide of water-related environmental issues facing our region.

For years now, environmental experts have predicted that much of South Florida’s prime real estate will be all wet by 2100. The Natural Resources Defense Council, in 2011, warned that the Keys could be underwater by then. At a conference in December 2013, a scientist from the Environmental Defense Fund said coastal areas of Florida could be flooded even sooner, by the middle of this century.

It all makes for harrowing headlines. However, sea-level rise is far from the only water-related issue facing the tri-county area.

Boca Raton turned to some of the state’s top experts—scientists and PhDs, engineers and biologists, professors and environmental lobbyists—and asked them to weigh in on environmental challenges ranging from disappearing coral reefs to the future of our drinking water. And, yes, the rising ocean levels.

As it turns out, there are solutions to some of the most pressing concerns. Others remain a work in progress. If there’s one point on which everyone seems to agree, it’s this: The time to act is now.

In Search of Higher Ground

Dan Kipnis became a sought-after environmental expert pretty much by accident. The renowned game fish captain grew up casting his line in Biscayne Bay and in the Everglades. Seeing the flooding on Miami Beach and the saltwater intrusion into the swamps, he understood the stark reality: The sea is rising.

A decade ago, he began taking reporters and scientists on outings to show them the signs. He takes them, for instance, to a stretch of Everglades that used to be all saw grass; now it’s half mangroves, which can only grow in brackish water. At 64, Kipnis has become pessimistic about our future in South Florida.

“For sure, we are going away,” says the Miami Beach resident. “I don’t see any optimism. I would say within a hundred years we won’t be living here at all.”

There’s no doubt among scientists that South Florida will suffer from sea-level rise. The consequences could even be catastrophic. But there are those who say that when the waters rise, so will our good ideas, so will our inventors. After all, that’s what Americans do best: fix the things that seem hopeless.

And it does seem hopeless if you listen to Harold Wanless, a University of Miami professor and chair of the Department of Geological Sciences. He cites the U.S. government’s prediction that seas will rise from 1 to 4 feet by the end of this century—a prediction some say is far too low.

If that prediction comes true, Florida’s barrier islands may be largely uninhabitable.

Our system of pumps and canals that keep the Everglades out could become overwhelmed, swamping western areas. Ocean intrusion into the Everglades will mean hurricane storm surge could attack from the east and west.

Even worse: The water table will rise everywhere and quite possibly put a majority of South Florida land under water. Streets could become canals, neighborhoods may turn into lakes, whole towns might disappear. Even areas of higher elevation could become unlivable if the availability of basic services becomes an issue—or if insurance companies bail on the region.

Broward and Miami-Dade counties, with an average elevation of just 6 feet, could lose large swaths of land by 2100. Palm Beach County, which averages 15 feet above sea level, will fare better, but coastal areas and former swampland could still suffer.

“When you look at a map of sea-level rise and how it will affect South Florida, you have to wonder how we will hang on,” Wanless says. “This is a gorgeous place to live, so we will enjoy it as long as we can. We are talking about a doomed community.”

For more on this special environmental report, pick up the March/April issue ofBoca Raton magazine.