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Planners Say Time Is Running Out To Prep South Florida's Aging Flood Control System For Sea Rise

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Jenny Staletovich
/
WLRN
Planners say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs re-evaluate the 70-year flood control network that drains South Florida to accommodate sea rise.

Local water managers and planners say the 70-year-old system needs to undergo a $6 million study to look at fixes to address sea rise.

Planners and water managers took their fight to regional planners Friday as they struggle to update the 70-year-old sprawling flood control system, that stretches from Central to South Florida, to accommodate heavier rainfall and rising seas fueled by climate change.

The miles of canals and levees originally designed to accommodate 2 million people never contemplated sea rise. The region now has 11 million people, with seas rising twice as fast as just 20 years ago.

“Some of that rise may not be permanent, but the trend is what the trend is,” Broward County Resilience Chief Jennifer Jurado said during a workshop of the South Florida and Treasure Coast regional planning councils. “That's what we need to be anticipating and recognize that time is not our friend.”

A study to determine what needs to be fixed is expected to cost $6 million and take four years.

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While improvements — including massive new pumps or other drainage features — could be costly, revamping the system is not unprecedented. A restudy done in the 1990s to deal with polluted water draining from farm fields into the Everglades, and damaging marshes and Florida Bay, led to the massive Everglades restoration plan Congress approved in 2000.

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South Florida Water Management District
South Florida water managers used temporary pumps in 2017 when waters flooded a water conservation area.

Local planners have been calling for a look at the system for the last five years as flooding issues grew worse, Jurado said.

But not everyone agreed, with politics often defining who backed the need to address sea rise.

In 2017, local water managers lashed out at the National Academies of Science when scientists first called for Everglades restoration — which aims to fix ecological damage caused by the flood system — to reboot and factor in sea rise. The South Florida Water Management District said the recommendation was “saturated in self interest” by scientists hoping for more studies. Even local Everglades scientists worried that pushing too hard on sea rise might cause more political division and slow work.

District leadership, which changed under Gov. Ron DeSantis, is now backing the effort to study fixes and has agreed to split the cost with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Until recently, Jurado said Friday, local planners thought they’d succeeded at getting support and including the study in this year’s Corps work plan. In addition to the district, county commissions in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach have also endorsed the plan.

“We've had endless visits with congressional members, joint advocacy with Army Corps headquarters, the Office of Management and Budget. We've been in the office, I think, of every legislator,” she said.

Then last month, they learned the study had been nixed.

“Everything was in place. And then three weeks ago, we see the work plan. And once again, the project was not included,” she said. “It is year after year of annual disappointments and thinking what are we not doing right in the strategy?”

The planning council has drafted a resolution calling for the new study but their attorney, Keith Davis, advised members not to vote Friday because the meeting was advertised as a workshop. He suggested they hold a special meeting or vote at their next meeting.