Climate change is going to cost Florida a lot of money

Yet, so far at least, Tallahassee hasn’t invested much in protecting the most vulnerable state in the nation from rising seas.
A cyclist and vehicles negotiate heavily flooded streets as rain falls, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, in Miami Beach, Fla. Certain neighborhoods regularly experience flooding during heavy rains and extreme high tides.  New storm water pumps are currently being installed along the bay front in Miami Beach. National and regional climate change risk assessments have used the flooding to illustrate the Miami area's vulnerability to rising sea levels. [AP Photo | Lynne Sladky]
A cyclist and vehicles negotiate heavily flooded streets as rain falls, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, in Miami Beach, Fla. Certain neighborhoods regularly experience flooding during heavy rains and extreme high tides. New storm water pumps are currently being installed along the bay front in Miami Beach. National and regional climate change risk assessments have used the flooding to illustrate the Miami area's vulnerability to rising sea levels. [AP Photo | Lynne Sladky] [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published July 11, 2019|Updated Sept. 11, 2019

For the state of Florida, adapting to climate change is going to be complicated, revolutionary and very, very expensive.

But so far at least, Tallahassee hasn’t invested much in protecting the most vulnerable state in the nation from rising seas. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who campaigned on a promise to address red tide and harmful algae blooms, has won initial praise from environmentalists for stepping above the low bar set by his fellow Republican predecessor, Rick Scott, a climate change skeptic who is now a U.S. senator.

In the latest budget, DeSantis more than tripled the state’s investment in planning for sea rise through its Florida Resilient Coastlines Program. That sounds considerable but in hard dollars it only raised the Scott budget of $1.6 million to about $5.5 million.

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In a state that by one estimate needs to shell out $75 billion by 2040 just for seawalls, that’s pocket change.

No one knows exactly how much it will cost to adapt the Sunshine State to a warming world. The only certainty is the projects won’t be cheap.

“[The costs] are going to be astronomical,” said state Rep. Holly Raschein, a Republican from Key Largo. “It’s hard for us to build a statewide plan when we don’t have a price tag on what it’s going to cost.”

In the absence of significant investment from Florida lawmakers and governors, the tab so far has fallen mostly on local governments. In South Florida alone, local governments have already spent hundreds of millions on raising roads, flood pumps and elevating buildings.

“There’s a strong economic case there to start investing now,” said Yoca Arditi-Rocha, head of Miami-based climate advocacy group CLEO. “The multi-billion dollar question is, where do we get the money?”

Right now, South Florida climate projects in particular are funded by a mix of hiked-up fees, bond money or grants.

One day — perhaps soon — most experts agree the region will have to get more creative. That could include a concept like insuring coral reefs that help protect the coastline from storm surge and generate tourism money, like one community in Mexico is already doing. Or perhaps a statewide fund, maybe based on taxes on property sales, that would be dedicated to helping communities cover the cost of adaptation.

Before that, though, Florida and coastal communities are still trying to figure out how much everything will cost. It’s a difficult calculation because so much fundamental stuff is threatened by rising seas — from low-lying roads to leaky septic tanks and rusting old sewer pipes.

The City of Miami, for instance, assembled a $1.3 billion wish list of sea rise-fighting projects a few years ago, but it isn’t considered comprehensive, just a start of things to come.

Miami-Dade County’s most recent proposed budget includes a multi-year projection of resiliency costs that topped $20 billion, although its broader definition of “resilience” includes improved public safety, economic support and healthy housing, not just sea rise-related projects.

Saving county parks alone has a $175 million price tag, according to a consultant report. Fixing leaky septic tanks at risk from smellier problems when groundwater rises could cost $3.3 billion for residential septic tanks, $260 million for commercial.

A county-commissioned report showed nearly half of county-owned properties are at risk from sea rise. The report showed that tweaking the upgrades currently in the pipeline to include more resilience for the 28 most vulnerable would cost about $6.3 million, a low price compared to losing the properties — an estimated $24 million price.

Counties from Palm Beach to Monroe have already started spending big bucks on sea level rise projects. For instance, Monroe County is spending about $3.5 million to elevate less than one mile of road in the flood-prone Keys.

Adaptation could cost the South Florida Water Management District, which operates the flood control and water supply system for 16 counties from Orlando to Key West, more than $550 million in the coming decade, according to a presentation by district Hydrology Chief Aki Owosina.

In Tallahassee, state Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St.Petersburg, introduced a bill last session that asked the state to track climate adaptation costs, past, present and future. It died in committee.

Many South Florida cities aren’t waiting to start paying for these projects. Some are slipped into budgets as standard projects or improvements, and others are the results of new, dedicated funding sources.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that somebody in the county is spending some time, money or monitoring a contract that’s part of the solution,” said Miami-Dade Chief Resilience Officer James Murley. “It’s not just planning for a large investment, it’s the small investments we make every day.”

Miami Beach pays for its pumps and raised roads with higher stormwater fees, an idea that won the city praise from an expert panel that reviewed Miami Beach’s climate strategy. That money is expected to fund $500 million worth of flood-proofing infrastructure.

Miami voters agreed to spent $192 million on climate adaptation as part of a $400 million Miami Forever Bond. The first wave of projects include revamping riverfront Jose Marti Park, strengthening Brickell Bay Drive and installing a new stormwater system in the flood-prone Fairview neighborhood.

But the problem with locally generated money like the Forever Bond, as Miami Commissioner Ken Russell puts it, is “it’ll be gone before we know it.”

That’s why elected officials in South Florida are eager to tap federal funds, like the millions FEMA is spending on Florida projects after Hurricane Irma. That money — nearly $500 million of it — was given to the state after Irma to help prepare counties and cities for the next big storm. It’s paying for projects like adding generators on top of government buildings and even elevating buildings.

“South Florida is an economic engine for the country and the state. It really behooves the nation to look at us as an example, not only for the benefit we bring to others but the learning we have in our community,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who said she wants to draft legislation about paying for climate change adaptation.

If South Florida is ahead of the curve when it comes to paying for these projects, Tallahassee is playing catch-up. For sea rise, the primary dedicated money pie is the Resilient Coastlines Program, which awarded its first slate of grants in 2018.

It is designed to help communities plan for sea level rise through vulnerability assessments, stormwater master plans or — in the case of Miami Beach — $35,000 to finish building a resilient shoreline. Its new $5.5 million budget puts it ahead of some smaller states, like Massachusetts, which plans to spend $3 million in 2020, but behind the slightly less populous New York, which has $11 million up for grabs this year.

“We are excited about the opportunity the unprecedented support for resiliency efforts provides and look forward to working with local leaders to protect Florida together,” Resilient Coastlines Program Spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in a statement.

Some of that cash is already in the works. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is doing several studies about the vulnerabilities of Florida’s coastal communities, including Miami. At the end of the three-year study, which kicked off late last year, the Corps will suggest an infrastructure project to protect the area — and pay for most of it. South Florida cities are applying for the state’s revolving loan program that helps tiny communities switch from septic tanks to sewer systems.

But what happens when — not if — the bills continue to grow?

One of the most controversial ideas, which will surely be met with pushback from politicians and industry, comes from activists, including the Miami Climate Alliance, who have been pushing for energy companies to foot the bill in a campaign called Pay Up Climate Polluters. Advocates say the oil and gas companies continue to pump out emissions they know cause climate change, and that the companies should pay for the cost of adapting to a warming world.

But if that doesn’t pan out, academics say Florida has other options.

Harvard business students, in a report for The Nature Conservancy, highlighted impact fees, a special tax for the neighborhood getting one of these projects and a collaborative revenue bond, where any city or utility that benefits from the project — say, all the cities that border Biscayne Bay — can pitch in to pay for a bond.

Lauren O’Connell, one of the report’s authors, said South Florida leaders even considered following the lead of Quintana Roo, Mexico, which took out a $3.8 million insurance policy on the coral reef its tourism-dependent economy relies on. The state government, local hotel owners’ associations and the National Commission for Natural Protected areas all pay into a trust that covers the insurance policy as well as routine maintenance on the reef. If a hurricane hits, the insurance policy immediately pays for repairs to both the reef and the beaches.

In South Florida, leaders mulled insuring the sand on the beach, which must be renourished regularly, at great cost. But since the federal government usually picks up the check, leaders told O’Connell they scrapped the idea.

She thinks one of the most feasible ideas for Florida is a resilience fund, a state-level pool of money that cities and counties can cheaply borrow money from to shore up their defenses against sea rise.

“It’s so important to have a source of upfront capital that local governments can pull from and eventually pay back,” O’Connell said. “It would do a lot to help local governments start preparing for these risks.”

California and Massachusetts have pending legislation to build a resilience fund, and New York is working on one for next year’s legislation, said Jesse Keenan, the Harvard professor who advised the business students on their report. He said he’s talked to many legislators in Florida who want to build one for Florida.

CLEO’s Arditi-Rocha is advocating for a Florida Future Fund that would do just that, with a funding emphasis on low-income areas and communities of color. So far, the effort hasn’t gotten much traction.

“We know as the planet keeps warming we’re going to start seeing it in our pockets and cities,” Arditi-Rocha said. “Governments need to prepare for that.”

This story was written by Miami Herald staff writer Alex Harris and produced by the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative that includes the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.