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Miami Beach has a bold idea to fight sea rise: Turn a golf course into wetlands

The city is exploring more nature-based solutions in an effort to keep the city dry.
Golfers practice at the Miami Beach Golf Club at 2301 Alton Road, on Sept.18. [PEDRO PORTAL  |  Miami Herald]
Golfers practice at the Miami Beach Golf Club at 2301 Alton Road, on Sept.18. [PEDRO PORTAL | Miami Herald]
Published Sep. 23, 2019
Updated Sep. 23, 2019

Miami Beach has been ahead of the curve in sea level rise adaptation for years. The city is spending half a billion dollars to pump and pipe rising seas off the island city, a move that has earned it international acclaim (and some local complaints).

But a recent proposal by a city-paid consultant offered a bold new idea in the war against climate change, one that would test the limits of just how much residents are willing to give up to adapt: turn the popular city-owned golf course into a wetland “eco-district.”

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The concept was part of a presentation on the ways the city can include more nature-based solutions in its fight to keep the city dry through climate change. Most of the proposals covered ground city officials have been talking about for years, including “bioswales” — roadside swales filled with water-absorbing plants that filter rainwater. The city just funded its first one this month.

Then there’s the idea of trading in the city-owned golf course for what would be the biggest park in the city. Consultants called the golf course plan a “signature project” and offered three possibilities to adapt the course to a warming world.

City-paid consultants presented Miami Beach residents with a menu of options for nature-based solutions to flooding induced by sea level rise, including a dramatic concept: turning the city-owned golf course into a wetland park. [Jacobs Engineering]

One, titled “retrofit,” would add more green, water-absorbing features to the golf course without affecting day-to-day operations. The second, “repurpose,” turns nine holes of the course into man-made wetlands with a recreation center. The third, “reimagine,” makes the entire 145-acre course into an “eco-district,” complete with a 115-acre wetland park that the consultant compared to New York’s Central Park.

It’s a radical idea that would face clear hurdles with the dominant tourism and real estate industries, but also presents an opportunity for the city to take a groundbreaking step toward the “living with water” strategy officials have been talking about for years.

It’s not the only time someone has suggested returning one of the three golf courses in the seven-square-mile city to nature. Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola floated the idea at a meeting earlier this year and said he liked the second concept, with half the holes converted to a public park.

He doesn’t believe it’ll impact tourism in a significant way because “it’s not a major tourist draw” and there are plenty of top-tier public and private golf courses in the county.

“Change is never easy. People get upset when we re-stripe parking spaces, so something as dramatic as getting rid of a golf course will obviously rattle some people,” he said. “If we’re truly serious about dealing with climate change then everything is on the table, including the golf course. If we’re not willing to even talk about it then we’re just paying lip service.”

Some residents at the packed city meeting last week asked how soon the project could get started. Matt Friesen, an urban designer with consultant Jacobs Engineering, said “realistically you’re looking at a 10-year horizon, minimum,” but with neighborhood buy-in and political will it could move along faster.

Another Jacobs staffer, Sustainability Lead Joe Rozza, reminded residents that these were just ideas for the city commission to consider. After Jacobs presents the full list to the city commission next month, the firm can begin crafting specific design criteria packages for whichever projects the commission approves.

“To be 100 percent clear on this — we’re trying to create a vision of what’s possible. Nothing is a recommended project at this point,” he said. “What we’re putting together is a menu of really good practices.”

This golf course wouldn’t be the first returned to nature. On Florida’s Gulf Coast, a private conservancy group bought an aging golf course in 2010 and turned it into Wildflower Preserve, an 80-acre wetland that connects to Lemon Bay.

In this case, returning the Miami Beach golf course back to nature would involve fully submerging it in Biscayne Bay. The western part of Miami Beach is man-made, part of founder Carl Fisher’s dredge-and-fill scheme to turn the narrow island into a tourist mecca — a vision turned reality that is now threatened by the 2 feet of sea rise expected by 2060.

To combat it, Miami Beach has committed at least $500 million to draining the rising seas off the island. The city’s plan to raise all vulnerable streets is one of the most ambitious in the nation, but it isn’t without its detractors.

Some residents fought the street raising. They complained of construction fatigue, unintended consequences to their homes and even an absence of flooding. Others started homeowner groups specifically to fight the proposed projects.

In response, the city got an outside perspective from experts at the Urban Land Institute, and on its recommendation hired a consulting firm — Jacobs Engineering — to revamp the city’s sea-rise plans with an eye toward more nature-based infrastructure.

On Tuesday night, Jacobs presented its suggestions, which imagined a much greener city. Street ends would have mangroves in the bay, canals would have floating boardwalks and wetlands and neighborhood streets would have pavement to drain rainwater into plant-based systems that filter the water before returning it to Biscayne Bay.

The consultants will present the ideas to Miami Beach’s commission next month, but the city isn’t waiting for Jacobs to start kicking off more green projects. This month, the city agreed to spend $850,000 on a pilot project to test out a bioswale on 59th Street and Alton Road.

Miami Beach is spending $850,000 to build a pilot project testing out a “bioswale,” which absorbs rainfall with plants that filter the water before draining it back into the ground or into Biscayne Bay. [Courtesy of Miami Beach]

The nearly million-dollar project would serve five homes and an empty lot, where the city plans to install water access as part of the project, with three different versions of a bioswale.

All three versions have the same benefit, said Miami Beach’s Director of Public Works Roy Coley. They soak up about two inches of rain (an average Miami-area rainstorm’s worth), clean the water and flush it into Biscayne Bay.

The difference in the three types the city is experimenting with is how they interact with the high groundwater table in the area. The version closest to the bay drains the water into a concrete trench, while the other two have open-bottomed trenches that allow the water to naturally filter into the aquifer.

“What it really is is a demonstration project,” Coley said. “These are already tested and proven and we’re quite confident it’ll work.”

Homeowners Curt Dyer (left) and Bruce Bender display a rendering of a proposed solution by the City of Miami Beach, to a flooding issue due to several factors affecting their house located at 5900 Alton Road. [PEDRO PORTAL | Miami Herald]

While this project won’t do much for sunny-day flooding or storm surge (a problem better addressed by strategies like road raising, pumping or injection wells), a bioswale would clean flood waters, which can be contaminated by everything from oil on the road to pet and human waste.

Miami Beach has been criticized in the past for not cleaning the water its stormwater system sweeps into the bay. And the city has pushed back harshly on the criticism. When a joint study between NOAA, Florida International University, the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University found Miami Beach’s flood pumps pushed water contaminated by human waste into the bay, former Mayor Philip Levine called it “sloppy science.”

“We want to prevent nutrients from going into the bay because it’s Miami Beach’s position that nutrient overload is the biggest harm to the bay,” Coley said. “Miami Beach has a minimum amount of nutrients going into the bay and we want to further reduce that.”

The project is welcome news to homeowners on the street, who said they’ve suffered from intense flooding for years. Earlier plans to raise the nearby road last year were foiled when some neighbors objected, saying the street doesn’t flood (despite the temporary pumps installed up and down the road) and that they worried the raised road would push floodwaters onto their properties. The project was paused for seven years to allow time for a state project to update Alton Road, which is set to begin in the next couple years.

Bruce Bender and his husband, Curt Dyer, have lived in their sunny, mid-century modern home since 1998 and have suffered three major floods, as well as dozens of smaller ones.

Even on sunny days, saltwater bubbles up from their neighbor’s rusted drain and spills into their garage. It’s wrecked washers and dryers, water heaters, even a car once.

“Now whenever we think something is going to happen we take my car to Mount Sinai,” Dyer said.

On bad days the water climbs the extra step into their guest room and guest bathroom, soaking the furniture if they don’t remove it ahead of time. King tides are “horrible,” Bender said. The latest one sent four inches of water into their garage — and the next couple of king tides are expected to be even higher.

They looked into elevating their home, but the $400,000 price tag is out of their budget for now. The bioswale is their best hope for getting at least some of the flooding under control, even though the project is only designed to soak up two inches of rain.

“Whatever it does, whatever relief we get, is welcome,” Bender said. “We basically wanna die here, unless we’re underwater.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.


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