Coping with rising seas requires lots of money, cooperation

As part of an op-ed series, FIU News shares the expertise and diverse perspectives of members of the university community. In this piece, Jayantha Obeysekera, director of the Sea Level Solutions Center, offers his perspective on the need for collaboration to combat 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 is his own.

Sea-level rise is an enormously complex problem. It’s only getting worse.

To date, efforts to combat rising seas have been managed largely by local governments with some coordination at the regional level. To succeed, it must become a broader shared enterprise with the region’s academic institutions and local, state and federal governments.

We are already seeing how sea-level rise is accelerating and how it’s making life harder for us, jeopardizing our flood protection, freshwater water supplies and the health of our natural environment, particularly in the Everglades.

Our main drainage canals are like our highways – they take floodwaters from smaller canals that service neighborhoods and cities all the way to the ocean. When they all work together well, we stay dry.

As sea levels rise, it’ll be harder for them to push water out to sea. And like the clogged Dolphin Expressway and its arteries at rush hour, some areas will be under water before we know it.

Our drinking water is also being threatened. A coordinated, regional focus can keep us ahead of the challenges if freshwater wells near the coast become contaminated with saltwater. Water conservation, the cheapest option, should be promoted.

Alternative ways for supplying freshwater may also be needed. We might have to connect water supply networks in various regions and move wells farther inland. Or we could rely on water reservoirs elsewhere, like one in Palm Beach County or from freshwater stored in deep wells.

Keeping pace with sea-level rise will require new or upgraded facilities to maintain flood protection, water supplies and natural systems. It will be a big undertaking. It will be expensive. We’ll need the federal government to partner with us and now might be the time to leverage the administration’s interest in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.

Decisions on how, where and when to invest in infrastructure projects will be challenged by the scientific uncertainties that are inherent in projections of sea-level rise, rainfall, storm patterns and associated secondary impacts.

The communities that are not familiar with making complex decisions with ambiguous data will be in trouble. That’s where Florida’s university-based scientific community along with federal and state agencies can help. Working together, we can provide “actionable science” for resiliency efforts.

We must be nimble. Some investment strategies should rightly emphasize a near-term response, but we must also focus on larger resiliency efforts in the long-term.

One way to do this is for local governments to work together on planning and land-use decisions. The last thing we need is a future where we are unable to implement a response to sea-level rise because land is not available because it’s being used for unplanned development.

I am hopeful because we have the nationally recognized Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact in our back yard. Its local and regional partners promote the intergovernmental coordination we will need.

In South Florida, we are also leveraging the lessons learned across the globe. For instance, we are getting a better understanding of how The Netherlands deals with resiliency in the face of uncertainty. While they don’t necessarily face the same challenges we do, their strategies will be very useful in preparing our sustainability plans.

In the face of sea-level rise, cities and towns working independently is dangerous. A successful strategy to ensure South Florida’s resilience requires strong coordination, commitment, financing and collaboration among academic partners and governmental agencies at all levels.

Jayantha Obeysekera, Ph.D., is the director of the Sea Level Solutions Center at Florida International University