By Ryan Rossi, the South Florida Water Coalition
Though the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging as the new year begins, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Developed under incredible pressure with historic speed, scientists were able to produce a variety of vaccines in a matter of months.
As impressive as that achievement is, there is another problem that requires the same level of commitment, urgency, and scientific ingenuity to solve; its alarming effects are felt around the world each year. The problem, of course, is climate change – and for communities here in South Florida, the concern is specifically the effects of sea-level rise.
Most South Floridians are familiar with the effects that are most tangible – events like the king tide that often floods our roads and neighborhoods and sometimes stops traffic and invades living spaces. But there are other impacts, such as saltwater intrusion, that should equally concern us – and much like the nature of the pandemic – cannot easily be seen.
South Florida sits above the Biscayne Aquifer. It’s a shallow layer of highly permeable limestone lying under most of our southeastern coast that helps supply fresh water to more than 6 million residents.
As sea levels rise, denser saltwater pushes more easily through the aquifer, contaminating the fresh water beneath us. This is critically problematic, as wells installed on the surface are essentially corrupted – no longer able to safely pull fresh water to the surface for a myriad or purposes, including our drinking water supply.
As a result, our municipalities are left with decisions that are both difficult and expensive as eastern wells are lost to intrusion, western land is needed to develop new well fields and water supply routes need to be redirected.
The job of our utilities grows more complicated.
This is a grim reality that is expected to grow worse, not in some far-off decade, but in the next. By the mid-2030s, many scientists have projected that our current wellfields will not be able to adequately hold off this saltwater invasion. It is a problem that will wreak havoc on our economy, jeopardize public health, and cripple an already fragile environment.
But there are solutions that can make these scenarios far less damaging. And though water conservation is undoubtedly a useful solution, broader, more effective solutions are required.
One is protecting the current fresh water supply we already have. Fresh water from Lake Okeechobee, for example, plays a vital role in helping to minimize this damage by recharging our underground aquifers, a process that is essential in keeping salt water at bay.
As a result, the environment is protected, fresh water remains accessible and drinking water is kept safe. Protection to this fresh water – also known as baseline protections – has been an integral component to local water policy since Everglades restoration projects began over 20 years ago.
It is safe to say that it will be just as critically important for the next 20 years – and more. My organization, the South Florida Water Coalition, recently joined others in sending letters to the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District to raise attention to these developing dangers and insist that the water of our coastal residents and our local environment remains legally protected.
The Biden administration has vowed to make climate change – and in turn, climate solutions – a national priority, and that effort should be applauded. For South Floridians, this is certainly welcome news, but it will require building committed partnerships, consistent leadership from our elected officials, and certainly a great deal of hard work over the next decade.
And just like the lessons of the pandemic, science can lead the way to survival – and our water depends on it.
Ryan A. Rossi is the director of the South Florida Water Coalition, and was a candidate for the Florida State House in 2018.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.