09/14/2012 01:12 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2012

It's Common Sense: Miami Beach Planning for Rising Sea Levels

Maybe it's because we're surrounded by water. Maybe it's because flooding is a big, smelly problem for us, damaging property, snarling traffic and costing us millions in cleanup. But ours isn't the only city to suffer the human, property and financial cost of flooding, so I prefer to think it's because we're a well-educated, proactive and forward-thinking city. Whatever the case, the City of Miami Beach is among the first cities in the U.S. and maybe the first in Florida to officially recognize the effects of global warming in its planning and design criteria.

Specifically, our proposed Stormwater Management Master Plan is based on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' rising sea level projections resulting from global warming, as well as established tidal patterns, to control flooding and maintain water quality. Past plans were based on historic flooding records and geared toward compliance with water quality regulations.

Common sense, right?

If this doesn't seem like a big deal to you, consider the fact that adopting this type of data-driven and science-based approach has been the source of controversy in several other states.

North Carolina legislators have wrangled over the issue, first proposing language that would have barred the state's Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) from considering potentially escalating sea levels as a result of events like the melting of the polar ice caps due to global warming. Still under consideration is a compromise that places a four-year moratorium on use of accelerated estimates. This situation has climate change researchers like Duke University's Robert Jackson frustrated, noting in the July 3, 2012 issue of Science Insider that this bill "is the most blatant case of trying to ignore scientific input that I've seen in a long time." North Carolina's position is particularly puzzling in light of a recent study funded by the U.S. Geological Survey showing that the sea level along portions of the Atlantic Coast will rise three to four times faster than the rest of the globe.

But North Carolina isn't alone in trying to shut its eyes to the science of climate change. Arizona, Alabama, Kansas and Louisiana have each in their own way sought to officially reject the reality of global warming, and Tennessee has passed a resolution condemning the principals of sustainability.

Miami Beach asks not whether to do it, but whether it's enough

Miami Beach has had a long and proud history of embracing environmentally friendly initiatives and supporting sustainability. It's just good common sense. We were pleasantly surprised, nonetheless, by the number of our residents who attended the city's public meeting on August 17 to hear about the proposed Stormwater Management Master Plan. The 40-plus attendees "recognized that the sea levels are rising," noted Miami Beach Public Works Director Fred Beckmann. "So, incorporating the sea level rise into the master plan wasn't an issue; the issue for us is, are we doing enough?"

Some of the residents present at the meeting thought the plan and its projections too conservative. My feeling is that the additional tax burden on our residents is not warranted at this juncture. The plan presented by the engineer consultants allows for continued monitoring and evaluation and provides ample opportunity to address unanticipated issues should they arise, and will require us to raise taxes only if and when needed, rather than today.

To that end, the proposed Stormwater Management Master Plan is based on a flood data modeling analysis that accounts for the approximately three to six-inch sea level rise projected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the next 20 years. To ensure that we anticipate all contingencies, our planners used the high mean water elevation projection, taking into account our city elevations, to assess our current system of drainage basins and pumps and then design a flexible plan that allows us to monitor our tidal data and adjust our system as needed.

Expecting the unexpected

We wrote it as a 20-year plan for several reasons, not the least of which was to minimize the cost to our residents and businesses. Existing infrastructure such as sea walls and catch basins have a long life expectancy, but the mechanical elements such as pumps are likely to require upgrades in about 20 years. In addition, as my colleague Fred Beckmann points out, we may need to look at updating some regulations governing volume and rate of stormwater discharge into the bay. "This plan recognizes the fact that we need to be reviewing our regulations and our stormwater system as sea levels rise, and it gives us the flexibility to make adjustments over time," said Mr. Beckmann.

As a commissioner for the City of Miami Beach, I'm very proud of the scalable platform of the new Stormwater Management Master plan, which allows us to adapt to a range of climate change and sea level rise considerations over the next two decades. It's agility means we can be more prudent fiscally and scale up as need be. I believe it will bring much-needed relief to the residents of Miami Beach and welcome their comments as we move toward adopting the Stormwater Management Master Plan.