Climate researchers knew staggering costs will confront Floridians trying to protect their homes, properties and roads from rising sea levels in the decades ahead.
But a new report shows it could cost more than $1 billion just in Volusia and Flagler counties over the next 20 years. And that’s under one of the more conservative scenarios. Ultimately, the Center for Climate Integrity, a climate advocacy group, concluded costs to keep the water out could reach $4 billion locally by 2100 and $76-$123 billion statewide.
The report looked at where and how properties could flood under a range of sea level rise scenarios presented by federal researchers. And, it also looked at how many miles of seawalls could be needed to hold back the advancing water from those properties and how much those seawalls could cost.
Researchers familiar with Florida’s geology and politics, including Jason Evans at Stetson University, said seawalls won’t be the only answer. But Evans said the report does raise tough and important questions about how much it will cost to protect communities from rising water and how to decide what will be saved and what will not.
In Daytona Beach, that effort could cost up to $30 million by 2040, the report concluded. It could cost Ormond Beach up to $183 million and Palm Coast up to $131 million.
It’s not just cities directly on the coast that will be dealing with rising water. Cities along the St. Johns River also will be grappling with the impacts of sea level rise, concluded this report and others. This report puts the cost in DeBary at up to $83 million by 2040.
In total, the report concluded more than 9,000 miles of seawalls would be needed in Florida by 2100, the most of any state in the nation. Using a higher projection for sea level rise, the report concludes more than 300 miles of seawalls could be needed by 2100 in Volusia and Flagler counties.
In New Smyrna Beach, the report projected a need for 55 miles of seawalls by 2040, the eighth-most miles in Florida, at a cost of up to $300 million. To New Smyrna Beach City Commissioner Jake Sachs, those costs are unimaginable. He looks at Miami Beach where they’re already spending more than $400 million.
“You think we’re going to get $400 million around here?” asked Sachs. “It’s not going to happen. We’ve had no serious discussions about seawalls. And already the city has locations, such as the South Causeway, where seawalls are crumbling.”
The Center for Climate Integrity stated it wanted to elevate the conversation about the steep costs associated with protecting homes and properties as sea levels rise.
“The advocacy organization has definitely fueled conversations across the country this week,” said Evans, faculty director of Stetson’s Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience and a published author on the scope of what will be needed to respond to rising sea levels.
Evans is among those who have debated different elements of the report in a flurry of emails and phone calls. So is Thomas Ruppert, an attorney and coastal planning specialist with Florida Sea Grant.
“The scenario the report used — a maximum of 21 inches by 2100 — is actually pretty conservative,” said Evans. “Over the next decade another five inches of sea level rise is pretty reasonable and on the low end of what we expect.”
But Volusia County Chair Ed Kelley isn’t convinced. In a quick review, Kelley said in his opinion the Center’s projections are far off the more realistic charts he has reviewed.
“Being asked for over $2 billion for something that may or may not happen?” Kelley wrote in an email to The News-Journal. “We could not even get support for a 1/2 cent sales tax that would have generated $1 billion for issues that residents know exists. We are expected to find the money where?”
Experts across the country and the world say sea levels are rising in many locations for a couple of reasons. First, sea surface temperatures have been increasing in the oceans since 1980 and the ocean water is expanding as a result. Also, warmer global temperatures are melting land-based glaciers and ice sheets. Maximum temperatures continue to set new records in some of the world’s polar regions.
“In Alaska for example, March 2019 was by a very wide margin the warmest March on record,” said Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “And the three-month period between March and May was also the warmest on record, in part because of the sea ice which would normally be there and it wasn’t.”
Seas have been rising and falling on the Earth for thousands of years, but this time, federal experts say humans are contributing to the climate warming that is fueling the rise. Also, much of civilization is near water along the coast.
“By 2070, midrange scenarios from the federal government project a sea level rise of 12.6 inches to 3.3 feet. Potential scenarios from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are much higher — anywhere from to 5 to 10 feet by 2100,” Brettschneider said.
One recent report that looked at the potential instability of ice sheets concluded even higher sea level rise may be possible.
Ruppert said many of the communities he’s working with in Florida are using the much higher federal scenarios to plan their response. The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, for example, is using the NOAA projections.
But both Ruppert and Evans disagree with Center for Climate Integrity report’s assumptions about seawalls.
“Massive lines of seawalls in Florida are unrealistic and seawalls will be only part of Florida’s response,” Ruppert said.
That’s in part because of the environmental degradation they cause by encouraging sand to erode to the north and south of where seawalls ends. Also sea walls have legal limitations. Still, that’s anything but good news.
“Most of the options to protect areas other than seawalls are even more expensive,” Ruppert said. “If we can’t afford what they’re proposing, anything else is even more expensive, in some cases vastly more expensive.”
“Seawalls by themselves won’t work,” said Evans, who has advised cities throughout the Southeast on how to keep out rising water. “Even if you have a seawall, you’re going to have to do stormwater upgrades, as well as pumps and other infrastructure. Elevating buildings and putting in pumps would cost even more than sea walls. Living shorelines, where plants are installed along shorelines to absorb wave action and form a natural barrier, may also cost as much or more. Even giving up and abandoning properties in a retreat from the waterfront comes with costs.”
“Given the staggering costs in the hundreds of billions, it’s clear Florida will not be able to save everything,” Ruppert said. “The sheer cost of the infrastructure to try to protect everything is simply an unrealistic number. We can’t do that. The sooner we come to grips with that, the sooner we can start to have the really challenging conversation, which is where do we put our limited resources: Who pays, how do they pay and why?”
“Those are the multi-billion-dollar questions,” said Evans. “If this comes to pass in the way the report is suggesting, local governments are going to be in such a pickle. We’re not going to see these kinds of expenditures.”
Evans worked with Tybee Island, Georgia on a conceptual design to build two miles of seawalls to protect the most vulnerable spot in its community against a 3-foot storm surge until 2050.
“The cost was estimated at $35 million, Evans said, “and the city council was like, that’s out of the question. People who live on high ground might not be willing to help pay to protect someone who lives on the waterfront. And the questions could boil down to whether the city would protect one $1 million home or 10 $100,000 homes. It’s going to be a free-for-all, the wild west.”
“Satellite Beach, one of the cities out front on responding to sea level rise, already is considering policy recommendations that could pave the way to absolve the city of some repercussions related to sea level rise,” Ruppert said. “It’s all about relocation and when and where local governments can do infrastructure.”
“Local governments will not be able to rely on state or federal governments to bail them out because there will be too much competition,” said Sachs,“South Florida cities such as Miami and the Keys are already being affected and would be first in line for state money.”
But Ruppert points out it won’t only be Florida cities looking for federal money to help cover the costs.
“It’s Boston, it’s New York City, it’s Norfolk. It’s everywhere you look on the coast,” Ruppert said. “So many messages that I started trying to tell people nine years ago — and no one wanted to listen to — are now becoming common knowledge.”
“It won’t be just governments spending money to save properties,” Evans said. “Individual property owners could face high costs to save their own properties. One South Florida government already is holding property owners accountable. If the water floods over their canal seawall and floods an adjoining property, the property owner is required to raise the seawall. The decisions that will be needed shouldn’t be delayed. It’s really important to start thinking about those things now.”