Editor’s note: The author is responding to a recent Tampa Bay Times editorial, “One practical way for Florida to prepare for sea-level rise,” that argued that too many seawalls are already in place in Florida to do away with them anytime soon.
I read with dismay the perplexing editorial from the Tampa Bay Times’ Editorial Board on investing more in seawalls in the face of climate change. I say perplexing because they are right — action is urgently needed to prepare for the unavoidable impacts of climate change — but an outsized focus on holding back a relentless sea with 20th century technology was naive at best and negligent at worst. There is much we must do to prepare — but an emphasis on this outdated technology is a dangerous distraction from the real work the Tampa Bay area and indeed Florida must undertake.
In the 1900s, Floridians employed seawalls because they didn’t know any better — only later did we learn that seawalls don’t dissipate wave energy and can, in fact, accelerate scouring and erosion on adjacent properties without seawalls, creating an “arms race” wherein everyone needs a wall to avoid erosion. The increased wave energy and elimination of shallow-water habitats negatively impacts everything from seagrass to fish nurseries, which has cascading effects on water quality, fisheries and the food web — not to mention our coastal economies.
Most importantly, seawalls have landed us in the very predicament we find ourselves in today: The illusion of safety they provided allowed irresponsible development in hazardous coastal locations. Defending these poor choices is the equivalent of throwing good money after bad — but the good money is that of taxpayers and our environment paying to defend ill-advised, private waterfront investments of the past.
True, where they exist now, seawalls need to be maintained in compliance with state permitting conditions — just as they always have. But assuming the answer to sea level rise is building higher, wider, longer is short-sighted and comes at the expense of Tampa Bay. We have 21st century solutions that work with nature to protect the built environment — green and gray infrastructure like wave attenuation reefs that create calm water shorelines to stop erosion, provide habitat for oysters and drive a vibrant food web.
Paired with mangroves, they can protect communities and environmental resources, rather than having to choose between them. Audubon has already used these solutions in our work to protect the Richard T. Paul Alafia Banks Sanctuary in Hillsborough Bay. These tools are not just the future, they are now.
Coastal engineering is not the only step we urgently need to take. Remember: Flooding from sea level rise doesn’t just happen at the waterfront. When storm sewers and drainage systems that ordinarily depend on gravity no longer have a gradient — because sea level is no longer lower than the area being drained — they stop working. Storm events with extreme rainfall cause community flooding with nowhere for water to go. And high tides can actually use these drainage routes to flood communities even on blue sky days.
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To add insult to injury, the communities who often feel these impacts the most are historically excluded, low income and communities of color. Seawalls do nothing to solve this problem — they only protect coastal property owners. Coastal protections start with inland land conservation. Restoring and preserving green spaces and landscapes in inland communities slows down water rushing to the coasts after storm events. Historically, naturally occurring wetlands absorbed stormwater flooding on our landscape. Protecting our remaining wetlands and restoring those that are lost is not just an exercise in bunny hugging, it’s an investment in the resilience of our communities — all of them.
Finally, we have to take a hard look at our land use decisions. In the 1950s, we thought we could out-engineer the ocean, making risky locations safe for development. Today we recognize the arrogance of that strategy — as well as the very public cost to taxpayers and our environment for the benefit of waterfront property owners.
Florida’s environment is our economy — think only of the impacts to tourism and property values from 2010′s Deepwater Horizon disaster, or last summer’s Piney Point disaster and accompanying harmful algal blooms. Calling for such a heavy and continuing reliance on seawalls while we continue to allow building in vulnerable locations is truly sticking our heads in the sand, rather than the clear-eyed pragmatic leadership our coastal residents will need to survive and thrive in this changing Florida.
Julie Wraithmell is the executive director of Audubon Florida and the vice president of the National Audubon Society.