As seas rise, South Floridians will get thirsty before they get wet

As part of an op-ed series, FIU News shares the expertise and diverse perspectives of members of the university community. In this piece, Todd Crowl, director of the Institute of Water and Environment, and Rita Teutonico, associate dean of research in the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, offer their perspective on the need for Everglades restoration to protect South Florida’s fresh water supply and combat the impacts of sea level rise. This piece first appeared in The Invading Sea, a collaboration of South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media. The opinions expressed in the piece are their own.

By Todd Crowl and Rita Teutonico

Our house in Coral Gables sits at 14 feet of elevation – a veritable ridge by South Florida standards.

In the not-too-distant future, we will live on one of the small islands of South Florida. The Coral Gables Golf Course will be a prime fishing lake and the beach will be just down the road near what is now Highway 1.

Unfortunately, we are unlikely to still live in our lovely neighborhood because, much sooner than having beachfront property, we will have run out of fresh water. Our greatest hope for being able to stay and live on the islands of South Florida is the restoration of the Everglades.

All of the towns and cities in South Florida are built on an old reef.  The rocks beneath our feet are actually old corals. They come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have something in common – they are very light and porous.

Dead coral is nothing more than calcium carbonate and air – those little holes where the coral polyps lived. Therein lies our problem. Because the earth below us is actually coral, water easily moves through it both from the top and the bottom.

Now let’s consider the problem of sea-level rise.  As the seas rise, the pressure of the water increases — water is really very heavy.  But it’s not the pressure of the water pushing down that we worry about, it is the pressure of the seawater pushing UP that is our biggest fear.

The Biscayne Aquifer provides about 90 percent of South Florida’s drinking water. That’s about 8 billion gallons of water per day. But as the seas rise and the pressure of the salt water increases, our entire source of fresh water is increasingly at risk.

On top of the increase in sea level, we continue to pump water from the aquifer. That decreases the pressure of the fresh water pushing down.

And if things aren’t scary enough, we have drained about two-thirds of the Everglades, the other part of the fresh water pushing down against the rising seas and also refreshing the aquifer.

Indeed, saltwater intrusion into the aquifer has already reduced our freshwater supply by about 17 percent since 1985.  So salt water pushing up is increasing and fresh water pushing down is decreasing.

So, our teeter-totter is about to come to halt.  That is, unless we get focused and resolute.

Everglades restoration must be our biggest priority. If we don’t restore clean water to the Everglades, the saltwater intrusion into our freshwater aquifer will prevail and we will have to move elsewhere.

After all, fresh water is life. If we want to continue to live in South Florida, then maintaining our freshwater supply is imperative, and that will require a restored Everglades.  We do not want to fall victim to the adage, “water, water everywhere, ne’r a drop to drink.”

Todd A. Crowl is the director of FIU’s Institute of Water and Environment and director of FIU’s Southeast Environmental Research Center.


Rita A. Teutonico is associate dean of research at FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education and associate director of education for FIU’s UNESCO Chair on Water Security and Gender Equity.