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Miami-Dade County Rejected An Army Corps Plan To Fight Storm Surge — Here's What The Corps Says Is Up Next

Hurricane Irma flooded Brickell Drive and other parts of Miami-Dade County in 2017.
Wilfredo Lee
Hurricane Irma flooded Brickell Drive and other parts of Miami-Dade County in 2017.

This week, Miami-Dade County rejected a $4.6 billion U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to build flood walls and gates around Biscayne Bay to protect neighborhoods from hurricane storm surge — opting to instead devise its own plan.

The move followed criticism from the county and environmentalists who worry that the barriers could harm seagrass and other marine life in a bay already battling pollution.

“The community has been giving feedback for the last three years and asking for exactly this,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper. “Miami is blessed with many ecosystems that will naturally protect us from storm surge like dunes and wetlands and mangroves and coral reefs and we really want to see those enhanced.”

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Because so little design workhad been done — given the $3 million budget for planning, just 10% is complete — critics worried the full environmental impacts remain unknown.

Had the plan advanced, the federal agency would have split the multi-billion dollar cost with Miami-Dade 65-35, with the Corps paying a larger share. The plan was on track to be sent to Congress for approval in time for a 2022 Water Resources Development Act, which typically gets approved every two years.

The county decision upends that schedule.

Michelle Hamor, planning chief at the Corps' Norfolk District, told WLRN’s Jenny Staletovich the Corps will now need to request more money and time to continue the work.

What follows is an edited excerpt of that interview.

WLRN: Explain what happens next now that Miami-Dade County has sent a letter saying that they want to suggest a locally-preferred alternative.

HAMOR: I'll just note that [Miami-Dade County] has the right to request a locally-preferred plan. So this is part of the process and other projects have experienced the same thing. We received an official request letter this week.

We will review it and ultimately that goes up to the assistant secretary of the Army's Civil Works Office. Normally for feasibility studies we would cost share 50-50. But in this case, the federal government provided the $3 million for the study. And so we would have to request additional funding to continue the study. It's possible, though, that we could send that up and it not be approved.

Do you have any idea how much more it would cost to do the additional review? Are we talking about another $3 million?

It really depends on the scope of the locally preferred plan and how much additional analysis will be required to develop that.

What kinds of things could be in a local plan that the Corps is willing to consider?

So we have to develop a plan that maximizes the net benefits. And really we're trying to consider the federal taxpayer investment. There may be items that Miami-Dade would like to see. Maybe more natural, nature-based features. But if they don't support the return on the federal taxpayer investment, Miami-Dade might be required to pay for those.

You all have already spent three years developing and analyzing a plan. Is there a deadline for the county to provide their alternative? Will it be another three years?

There are a couple of factors that play into it. For the recommended feasibility study, as it is right now, we had submitted an environmental compliance policy exception which indicated that we were at a 10% level of design. And certainly the resource agencies would like to see additional detail.

If you think about the enormous recommended plan, it's covering [seven] focus areas in Miami-Dade County. We're recommending features that are new to southern Florida. So we're talking about surge barriers and flood walls and these are not normal features in this area. So understandably, the resource agencies would like to see additional detail to understand how that would impact the environment moving forward. So we might have to do additional design.

The goal for the study was to have a chiefs report ready by October of this fiscal year and that would have positioned it for consideration if there was a Water Resources Development Act of 2022. If we could do this additional analysis, the goal would be by December 2023 for consideration if there's a possible WRDA 2024.

The cost [share] here is, was I correct that it's 40-60, or am I thinking of Everglades restoration?

That would be 65-35.

And will that split remain the same or does it depend on what goes into the plan?

That's a great question. It depends on what goes into the plan.

We've developed the National Economic Development Plan [cost-benefit analysis] in the draft final report, and that was our recommended plan. That plan will be used to compare to the [Miami-Dade County proposal] and that will also determine the cost share between the two plans.

You said it sometimes happens where the local [government] has said, look, we'd like to offer our own alternative. Do you know of any other cases?

I'm not aware of any cases around Florida. It does happen in other feasibility studies. Certainly, that's their right to do it. In some cases, the [local government] may not have the capability, the amount of money required for the recommended plan, and they may be interested in kind of a subset of that recommended plan.

Moving on to Monroe County. I just looked and [Monroe] is on schedule [for approval] in 2022.

Absolutely. And we are happy to report that will be presented to our chief of engineers on the 24th of September.

Would the shoreline stabilization of U.S. 1 be the first thing that happens? And when would money become available for property owners to either do flood proofing or elevate properties?

We have to compete nationally for funding. So it certainly depends on the funding. I'm sure the team will meet with Monroe County and identify the path forward. But I do believe that [U.S. 1] was a high priority for the county and I believe they can start work on design for those shoreline stabilization while they're working to do design on the nonstructural portions.

You can read more stories like this one by signing up for our environment text letter. Just text “enviro news” to 786-677-0767 and we’ll send you a roundup of stories like this — and more — every Wednesday.

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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