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Demand for pumps jumps with rising seas and flood risks. Florida’s bill will be massive

tamiami trail pumps.jpeg
Jenny Staletovich / Miami Herald Staff
The Miami Herald
Floodgates along Tamiami Trail pour floodwaters from a conservation area to the north into the canal, which drains to Biscayne Bay. Because sea rise is slowing the drainage system. the South Florida Water Management District has proposed $2.5 billion worth of pump projects and other infrastructure upgrades as part of plan to improve flood protection.

Inside one of the biggest stormwater pump factories in Florida, 90 workers are busy molding metal: cutting, shaping, welding, painting and assembling it into the massive machines responsible for keeping South Florida’s streets dry.

The pumps they’re building can stand up to 20 feet tall, weigh as much as 22 tons and include pipes so big the workers can stand up inside of them. When they’re installed in low-lying neighborhoods and alongside sluggish canals, they can stop water from flooding into homes and businesses during storms and king tides.

They’re part of the growing and staggeringly expensive infrastructure that will be needed to keep South Florida habitable even as the seas rise and climate changes produce more extreme rainfall from hurricanes like Ian, which drenched a large swath of the state just months ago.

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The factory, which sprawls across four city blocks in Deerfield Beach, belongs to a pump manufacturing company called Moving Water Industries (MWI). Founded in 1926 by a Deerfield farmer named Hoyt Eller, the company is now run by his great-grandson, Dana Eller. He’s hoping to guide the company through what is shaping up to be the fastest expansion in its century-long history.

Pumps helped build South Florida. MWI and its early competitors sold some of the first pumps that allowed homesteaders to come to South Florida, drain the water off their land and begin farming and building on it.

And now, pumps are an integral part of plans to help save South Florida from flooding. Thanks to climate change, stormwater systems here — and around the world — are coming under growing strain. In some cases, they’re starting to fail. “It’s a combination of things: You have more development, you have aging stormwater infrastructure, you have higher rainfall, and out on the coasts the average tides are higher,” said Eller.

That’s creating more demand than ever for pumps. To keep up with orders, Eller says MWI plans to double its manufacturing capacity over the next five years

Local governments are giving Eller good reason to believe he’ll be able to keep his assembly lines busy once they’re built. The South Florida Water Management District and city governments across the region plan to spend billions of dollars to install hundreds of stormwater pumps in the coming years.

“I think it’s safe to say that the pump industry, particularly for stormwater pumps, is going to be busy for the next couple of decades,” said Joe Gomez, director of public works for the city of Miami Beach.

South Florida depends on pumps

Pumps have always played a key role in keeping South Florida dry — for better and worse. They helped drain the Everglades to open vast tracts to farming and development, an economic boom that came at an environmental cost not fully understood for decades.

“They’ve been very important in not only changing the topography of the region, but also the economics of it and the image of it,” said Paul George, resident historian at the HistoryMiami Museum.

Until the 20th century, water flowed freely across the flat sawgrass plains of South Florida in a “River of Grass” that ran from Lake Okeechobee to the southern tip of the state and into Florida Bay. Then, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built dikes to stop the Okeechobee from overflowing its banks and dredged canals to drain hundreds of billions of gallons of water a year out of the Everglades and into the sea. Many pockets of land that once sat under several feet of water dried out. But some low-lying areas stubbornly refused to drain.

Starting in the 1910s, developers used pumps to drain out the last wetlands in places like Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale, according to George. Meanwhile, farmers and homesteaders who had flocked to South Florida bought pumps from companies like Couch Pump (founded in 1917), M&W Iron Works (1926) and Farmers Pump (1936). They pumped water off their land when it flooded and pumped water back onto the land to water their crops.

MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com
The Miami Herald
Kamal Muhammad, a welder assembler, works on a pump at MWI in Deerfield Beach. The pump business is booming, in large part because of increasing flood threats and projections of sea rise in the future.

This elaborate system of canals, dikes, levees and pumps drove out wading birds and altered the Everglades ecosystem forever, but also made way for farms, homes, hotels and, eventually, the $300-billion-a-year economy of South Florida. Over time, Couch, Farmers, and M&W Iron Works eventually merged into the Florida pump giant known as MWI.

South Florida drainage ain't what it used to be

But these days, South Florida’s drainage system isn’t working as well as it used to.

Mike Hogan has gotten used to the flooding in his neighborhood. The 56-year-old JetBlue ground crew worker has lived in an El Portal home on the banks of the Little River canal for 27 years. On rainy days, water washes off Northeast 85th Street and across his sloping property before sliding into the canal. After a storm, he might find a few inches of standing water in his yard, which can take three or four days to dry out.

Once, during a hurricane, he looked out his window to see the canal had overflowed its banks and was creeping up toward his back door. “Holy crap!” he remembers saying. “There are waves in my backyard!”

Hogan lives just a quarter of a mile upstream from a flood control gate known in the engineering jargon of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) as the S-27 coastal structure. In theory, the flood gate should open to allow the canal to whisk away storm water before it pools in Hogan’s yard. But the S-27, like many flood control structures in South Florida, isn’t working as well as its designers originally planned.

As sea levels rise and tides get higher, water is draining out of the canals more slowly and floodgates like the S-27 have to close more often to keep out seawater.

“These structures were designed and built in the ‘50s or ‘60s, and they are not functioning ideally anymore because of the rising sea levels,” said Jayantha Obeysekera, a former SFWMD engineer and now a professor who heads the Sea Level Solutions Center at Florida International University.

S-27 coastal structure.jpeg
Nicolas Rivero
The Miami Herald
The South Florida Water Management District uses the S-27 floodgate to control the flow of the Little River canal.

Already, the S-27 moves about 10% less water than it did when it was built in 1963, according to SFWMD estimates. If sea levels rise another two feet — which the South Florida Regional Climate Compact expects will happen by 2060 — the S-27 would move less than half as much water as it originally did.

SFWMD S-27 SLR predictions.png
The Miami Herald
The South Florida Water Management District’s Sea Level Rise and Flood Resiliency Plan documents how sea level rise is affecting the amount of water that flows through the S-27 coastal structure.

The SFWMD plans to spend more than $100 million to install a pump station at the S-27 site to help push water down the canal more quickly and prevent flooding. Eventually, the district hopes to install pumps on at least 22 more floodgates, according to SFWMD resiliency officer Carolina Maran. In total, the district has proposed $2.5 billion worth of pump projects and other infrastructure upgrades as part of the sea level rise and flood resiliency plan it published in September.

Sea rise, stronger storms, sprawling concrete

Most of South Florida’s drainage infrastructure relies on gravity to move water off the land. During heavy rains, water either seeps down into the ground or it flows downhill into stormwater pipes and canals and eventually washes out to sea.

But a trio of forces is conspiring to keep gravity from draining water as quickly as it used to: “Sea level rise, [higher] groundwater, and a potential increase in rainfall intensity will lead to more flooding and a greater need for drainage through pumps,” said Obeysekera.

Since 1950, local sea levels have risen about eight inches, according to NOAA tidal gauge data. As sea levels rise, the height difference between South Florida land and the surrounding ocean is getting smaller. That means there’s not as much of a downhill slope to pull water off the streets and into canals and stormwater drains, which causes water to drain more slowly.

Plus, during high tides, flood control gates like the S-27 have to close to keep seawater from flowing backward up the canals and flooding onto the streets. At the peak of king tide season, the floodgates might be closed for up to 15 hours a day. But if a storm hits while the floodgates are closed, the rainwater that drains into the canals can’t flow out to sea. Instead, the water builds up behind the floodgate and eventually overflows onto nearby roads and buildings.

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Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com
The Miami Herald
A parked car is partially submerged in a king tide flood in November in Miami. The city now routinely employs portable pumps to handle the higher tides, but some areas remain problematic.

Meanwhile, groundwater levels have been rising at about the same rate as sea levels. Because groundwater is rising, there’s not as much dry soil left underground to soak up water during storms. And South Florida’s development boom has covered much of that soil up with impermeable concrete and asphalt, which makes it even harder for water to drain into the ground.

To add to those headaches, some early research suggests our warming atmosphere may make extreme rainfall events more common, putting more strain on stormwater systems to drain a lot of water fast.

Just look at the massive inland flooding Hurricane Ian left in its wake. Rural swaths of Southwest Florida like Arcadia sat under water for weeks, devastating many residents who are uninsured. Some counties in the Orlando area also reported “historic flooding” from the system.

A flood of stormwater pump funding

So as South Florida’s gravity-based drainage systems begin to slow down, local governments are buying more and more pumps in an effort to speed them back up.

“We can no longer depend on gravity to be able to move water off the land, so pump stations are becoming necessary,” said Nancy Gassman, Fort Lauderdale’s assistant public works director in charge of sustainability.

Fort Lauderdale intends to triple the size of its network of pump stations from four pumps to 12 as part of its 2018 stormwater master plan.

Other cities are following suit. Miami Beach has built 48 pump stations to keep its streets dry and envisions 57 more as part of its 2021 stormwater master plan. The city of Miami plans to add at least 93 more pumps to its existing network of 13 as part of its 2021 stormwater master plan. The entire plan, which also includes money for seawalls, injection wells and massive stormwater pipes, is expected to cost $3.8 billion.

Add in the cost of running and keeping up so many pumps and South Florida will be paying massive bills to stay dry in the future.

Daniel A. Varela dvarela@miamiherald.com
The Miami Herald
Former Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell explains how newly installed one-way tidal valves and temporary pumps will help reduce flood risk before the approach of Tropical Storm Eta in 2020.

To be sure, pump stations aren’t the only tools cities are using to adapt to climate change. “Pumps are an important and crucial piece, but they’re not the entire resilience strategy,” said Amy Knowles, the chief resilience officer for Miami Beach.

Miami Beach is also raising roads, building parks with large underground stormwater reservoirs and updating its building codes to push property owners to elevate their homes and businesses. All these efforts acknowledge that there’s a limit to how much good pumps can do.

“We cannot pump the ocean,” said Cristina Ortega-Castineiras, a Miami Beach city engineer. “Sometimes we get folks who say, ‘Hey, just install bigger pumps and dewater the city.’ But that’s just not cost effective, and at a certain [sea] level, it’s near impossible.”

Pumps come full circle

Back in Deerfield Beach, MWI is getting ready for the expansion that will allow it to double the quantity of pumps it can churn out.

The Deerfield factory will get a makeover, with new equipment arranged to make more efficient use of the space. The company’s second factory in Vero Beach is about to hit a growth spurt: MWI is building an extra 8,000 square feet of factory space on the 12 acres of land it already owns. It’s also clearing another 10 acres of adjoining land it bought last year with plans to build a specialized plant designed to assemble the biggest custom pumps it produces.

MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com
The Miami Herald
Antonio Newry, a welder fabricator, at work at MWI in Deerfield Beach. The company is redesigning its plant in Broward County and expanding one in Vero Beach as the demand for pumps soars.

Although MWI sells or rents stormwater, sewage and irrigation pumps across the U.S. and in 70 other countries, Eller, the company president, says Florida is still the company’s biggest market. Many of its stormwater pumps are destined for clients like the SFWMD or the cities of West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Key West. Eller says he gets a lot of satisfaction from the business he does in South Florida.

“Most of the people that live here actually live in communities that are being drained by stormwater pumps that we built,” said Eller. “It gives me great joy that not only are we manufacturing things in Florida, but we get to see our labor help people by either keeping their homes dry or by helping to restore the environment.”

A century after companies like MWI helped clear the way for South Florida’s development, they’re on a new mission to keep those developed areas intact.

“Pumps were always important,” said George. “But now of course we’ve got a very urgent need — more urgent than anything that came before — and that is trying to keep these rising waters away from destroying communities.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.