One of the successes of the Climate Compact is the development of a unified sea-level rise projection that will avoid more scenarios like this in the future. (Image Credit: Miami Today News)
In the face of climate change, what steps are the local governments of South Florida taking to react and protect the people and environment? In 2009, officials from Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties created the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, to serve as a forum for climate preparation in the most climate-vulnerable region in the country. In 2012, this led to the publication of the Regional Climate Action Plan (RCAP)- a set of recommendations, guidelines, and best practices for local governments. After learning lessons from successes and failures over five years, the Compact released an updated RCAP in late 2017.
For South Florida, water is key to understanding how the climate will impact our region, and what tools we have available to protect ourselves. The RCAP includes 38 specific recommendations with a focus on water, and covers the topic as an entire issue. The actions cover water’s role in everything from the local agricultural economy to water-borne public health risks and more.
For a regional approach to managing water risks, a science-based understanding of the status quo and climate projections will be key. One of the successes of the Climate Compact is the development of a unified sea-level rise projection, and the RCAP repeatedly calls for using that projection. Goal WS-2, for example, recommends that all water management decisions are consistent with the projection as well as flooding and saltwater intrusion models. Similarly, goal WS-4 calls for consistent mapping of saltwater intrusion every five years to identify groundwater wells at risk of contamination. Baseline maps have been established, but using those maps to record wells at risk, still needs to be done.
The variety of government levels involved can present a challenge all its own. One feature of the water recommendations is aligning the different regulations and rules so that no place can fall between the gaps. Some of these goals are abstract, like WS-1’s call for “collaboration with state and federal agency partners and academic institutions to support management decisions and reduce duplication efforts.” However, others are incredibly specific. Goal WS-9, with no precedent in the original RCAP, advocates for updating the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s “Stormwater Management Rule” to include climate conditions and adaptations in future permitting requirements. Goal RR-7 calls to ensure that local comprehensive plans align with the state Coastal Construction Control Line, which is designed to create a buffer between manmade construction and the exposed coastline.
A second feature of the RCAP recommendations is the reliance on natural systems to provide ecosystem services. Most notably is the repeated call of WS-20 to support the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in Tallahassee. Considering the previous RCAP, only 33% of municipalities took that step in 2016, so increased compliance with the Compact is a necessity. Goal NS-12 calls for an expansive set of policies to protect freshwater wetlands, open space buffers, and estuarine waters, including acquisitions of conservation easements, adoption of real estate tax incentives, and designation of formal wetland zones with additional protections.
There are other specific visions of how natural systems can be advanced, too. Goal NS-7 calls for the creation of “living shorelines”, and NS-8 supports coral reef restoration efforts. However, such actions not only face the future climate risks, but the existing manmade mistakes, too. The coral reefs of Biscayne Bay face disease and bleaching at unprecedented levels, and also suffer from dredging and sedimentation runoff.
Finally, there are recommendations throughout the RCAP to create more resilience in South Florida’s water infrastructure. A new goal, SP-16, calls for the phase-out of septic systems where necessary. Goal WS-21 calls for the development of regional and distributed surface water storage for stormwater capture and reuse. Goal WS-17 calls for identifying and advancing capital funding mechanisms for adaptation improvement projects related to water management. The threat of storms and waste runoff are an increasing concern, but their quick implementation for safe and healthy reuse and storage of water will be vital. In contrast, when Hurricane Irma knocked out electricity to the waste treatment pumps across the state, over 9 million gallons of untreated storm runoff and sewage leaked into the ecosystem and built environment. The hope is to alleviate these issues in the future.
The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact’s RCAP represents a stirring vision of leadership and foresight amidst an existential environmental threat. Throughout the many recommendations, water management and policy reoccur as a pronounced risk. Following the guidelines of the RCAP, and pushing for stronger measures in the future, will be a call to action for all stakeholders in South Florida in the years to come.