Rising sea threatens South Florida’s drinking water and region’s economy | Opinion
You grab the last box, freshly packed with life’s memories. As you drive toward the highway, you pass the ruins of what used to be the city you made a home.
The downtown is now a ghost town. Your company has laid you off because all the offices are being forced to close. You must leave the city that you love. Why? The city that floods almost every day no longer has fresh drinking water.
Unfortunately, this scenario might become a reality for most of South Florida’s residents, who receive their drinking water from one source, the Biscayne Aquifer. The aquifer serves residents in Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
This system is approximately 4,000 square miles in size and made of limestone. Because of its permeable surface, saltwater, toxins, and sewage from floodwaters can easily contaminate the aquifer.
The 2018 Miami water quality report noted 89 contaminants found in the drinking water, including radon, arsenic, and lead. Miami-Dade County officials assured residents that the water still met national safety standards.
The Threat of Saltwater
According to the Broward County Commission, 41 percent of the water in the county’s drinking-water wells will contain saltwater by 2060. Some cities are coping by using desalination plants.
However, as My Flood Risk director of operations Amanda Bryant explained, “the process of reverse osmosis costs more than twice as much as getting water from the aquifer process, and not all areas have access to these resources.”
Consequences of Sea-level Rise and Flooding
A 2014 report by the EPA highlighted the threat that sea-level rise and flooding pose to the region’s water systems. They “could affect water infrastructure, including drinking water intakes and wastewater outfalls, and could push saline water into coastal aquifers.”
A report from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration found that precipitation in the Southeast increased by 27 percent during the heaviest 1 percent of daily precipitation. Because of the rising sea, parts of Miami often flood during high tide. Additionally, the rainfall the Miami area receives during a storm has risen by 7 percent in the last few years, increasing its flood risk.
Another Fukushima Disaster?
The floodwater threat to the region’s drinking water supply is also exacerbated by the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station, which is owned by Florida Power & Light (FPL). Contaminants and toxins from the plant have been found in the aquifer’s water for decades.
Environmentalists have fought the plan to extend the plant’s operation through the year 2052. Many of the plant’s cooling canals are already underwater. If sea levels continue to rise at the expected rate, the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts 26 percent of Biscayne Bay will be chronically inundated by 2040, 13 years before the nuclear plant’s proposed end date.
“Without knowing exactly how much storm surge and flooding Turkey Point can handle, we must look to the Fukushima disaster of 2011, and wonder if the U.S. government has prepared for something of this magnitude,” said Bryant, citing the meltdown of reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant in Japan.
What is the Answer?
What can be done to avert an environmental and economic disaster in South Florida? Bryant suggested that “immediate funding is one of the most obvious answers to South Florida’s water problem.”
A review of the region’s water pumps found that over 70 percent of them need to be replaced or repaired, which will cost up to $70 million. There is also the restoration of the Everglades and creating a new reservoir.
In 2017, voters approved a $400 million Miami Forever bond, which allocated money for projects to address sea-level rise. The projects include adding more water pumps, building seawalls and raising roads.
“While the Miami Forever plans are done with good intentions, there is no point in spending money to protect the city from flooding if there is no drinking water,” Bryant said.
Without drinking water, the city will no longer be habitable. The retreat from South Florida will damage the economy of the entire state, and possibly the country.
Jen Scherff is Project Manager for My Flood Risk, a free, interactive, web-based platform to help property owners determine their true flood risk using comprehensive, up-to-date data.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations -- the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.